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Previous trips can be accessed by clicking the following links:

2013
Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

2014
Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Denmark

2015
Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Monday, February 20, 2017

12/8: Abu Dahbi: Falcon Hospital

Since we had gotten an incredibly cheap flight home from South Africa to Copenhagen and then Reykjavik, Iceland via Dubai, we decided to spend six nights in the United Arab Emirates. After flying all night from Cape Town, we arrived before six in Dubai in the UAE, a federation of seven hereditary absolute monarchies established on December 2nd, 1971 and sometimes simply called the Emirates. Each emirate is governed by an absolute monarch; together, they jointly form the Federal Supreme Council. One of the monarchs is selected as the President of the United Arab Emirates. 
Most foreign visitors only head straight for the bright lights of Dubai, by far the most cosmopolitan destination in the UAE as it's home to a wide range of attractions. I had read that if we only visited Dubai though, we would come away with a very lopsided impression of life in the modern UAE. That was why we had decided to head first to Abu Dhabi for a few days before returning to Dubai for a few more days. National political life is dominated by Abu Dhabi, the biggest and richest of the seven emirates, covering around 85% of the UAE and boasting well over 90% of its total oil revenues. Dubai International Airport was the busiest airport in the world by international passenger traffic in 2014, overtaking London's Heathrow.
Was it ever a snafu trying to rent a car in Dubai! It took forever to reach the car rental location that was in the city and then work through three GPSs before finding one that worked. We hightailed it to Abu Dhabi, a 90 minute drive south of Dubai, as we had long ago reserved two places on the tour of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital beginning at 10. Thank goodness, the drive between the two cities was easy enough as it was on a superhighway almost the entire way as we got to the Hospital with just five minutes to spare - phew!
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the largest falcon hospital in the whole world, opened its doors in 2007 to visitors to experience the fascinating world of falcons and falconry. 

In early English falconry literature, the word 'falcon' referred to a female falcon only, while the word 'hawk' or 'hawke' referred to a female hawk. A male hawk or falcon was referred to as a 'tiercel' (sometimes spelled 'tercel') as it was roughly one third less than the female in size. 

After everyone was welcomed with glasses of juice, we met Hassan, our very amusing and engaging guide, who told the group that there were about 45 types of falcons but he would only be discussing three types. The fastest falcon in the world was the peregrine, one we've all heard of. The saker falcon is the most popular one in the UAE and the third is the gyr falcon.
Falcons, Hassan said, used to be eaten but now falconry is considered a sport. Falcons are super birds: they can kill and carry three times their weight. They have 'super eyes' and are capable of seeing six times further than a person. In addition, falcons have amazing ears but they don't need their noses. As fresh meat is their only meat of choice in the wild, falcons must hunt daily to survive. 
As falcons live in mountains naturally and not in deserts, they are very popular in the Emirates, according to Hassan. Falcons have three seasons: molting, hunting and breeding. When molting occurs in the summertime, falcons engage in no other activities other than feeding themselves locally. 
Six months later, once they have acquired their new feathers and their color has changed from white to off white, it is wintertime and they can start hunting. Falcons emigrate from mountains to the desert in the hunting season. Generally, only female falcons are used for hunting as they are one third larger than males. When they hunt, they are able to achieve speeds up to 75 mph! However, if just one feather is broken, falcons lose their balance and must come to the Abu Dhabi Hospital to mend. 
When falcons breed in the springtime from January to May, they lay four to five eggs. Wild falcons live for about 20 years and captive falcons live just two years less.
Hassan joked that captive falcons have a Rolex band or ring on each leg and a microchip. That acts as a 'passport' in effect with the falcon's name, sex, band number and owner on it. The passport, Hassan added, was necessary as each falcon has different feathers. 
After proceeding to the hospital's examination room where the falcons were waiting their turn for procedures to take place that day, Hassan introduced us to one of the veterinary nurses. She showed us one falcon's medical file and mentioned that the hospital sees about 100 falcons on an outpatient basis each day.
Upon entering the hospital, each falcon is weighed first and is hooded in order to keep it quiet at all times. The hood also ensures that they don't get aggressive.


This red-hooded bird of prey was a saker falcon, a large species of falcon. It often hunts by horizontal pursuit, rather than the peregrine's stoop from a height, and feeds mainly on rodents and birds. BirdLife International categorizes this bird as endangered, due to a rapid population decline, particularly on the central Asian breeding grounds. According to Wikipedia, ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United Arab Emirates have been the main destination for thousands of falcons caught and sold illegally for hefty sums at the black market. 
The white-hooded gyr falcon, the largest of the falcon species, we were told, was from the northern part of the world. It breeds on Arctic coasts and tundra, and the islands of northern North America, Europe and Asia. It is mainly a resident there also, but some gyr falcons disperse more widely after the breeding season, or in winter. Its plumage varies with location, with birds being colored from all-white to dark brown. These color variations are called morphs.  For centuries, the gyr falcon has been valued as a hunting bird. Typical prey includes the ptarmigan and waterfowl, which it may take in flight. It has also been observed feeding on fish and mammals. 

Falcons come to the hospital for minor surgeries, endoscopies (!!), transplantation of feathers, etc. The hospital, which had room to keep up to 250 falcons overnight, also had an emergency department.

This falcon needed anesthesia before his procedure.

A falcon's wingspan measures more than three feet wide.

 
A captive falcon needs its talons clipped two to three times a year because it only eats soft food in captivity. Once the nails are clipped, they must be sharpened again so they can hunt. Falcons in the wild keep their talons sharp on stones, etc. 
I had certainly heard of horses requiring new shoes but never knew that falcons did too. Apparently, they are subject to some disease which necessitates new shoes!
A close up of the ring on each leg specific to each falcon that contains information on its name, owner's name and phone number.
Nails being clipped:


A new feather was attached with good old super glue of all things!

The falcon next received a tracking beacon in one ear. Often, transmitters are placed in the middle of the tail, on the back or attached to the bird's legs. 
I was so surprised that we were all allowed to be so close when the procedures were being performed. We were never asked if we were sick and thus might pose a risk to any of the falcons.
The drawers contained various falcon parts for upcoming procedures!

What an unexpected treat being able to hold a three year old saker falcon!




Falcons are fed mice, ducks, chickens and quails; the later is the falcon's most nutritious food. A defrosted quail below:
A CNN producer held the same falcon I did.
The saker falcon began eating a defrosted quail by tearing the bones apart. Falcons eat 10% of their body weight twice daily in the hospital but, once released and during the hunting season, they are on a special diet.



We only caught a glimpse of the surgical room through the door.
I wonder what surgery was being performed on this falcon in the intensive care unit.

Hassan showed us the huge number of quality assurance awards the hospital received from various countries.
Falconry remains an important part of the Arab heritage and culture. The UAE reportedly spends over 27 million dollars annually towards the protection and conservation of wild falcons. That cost would be a lot higher were it not for the stiff fees charged to take the tour!

I learned that there are two falcon breeding farms in the Emirates, as well as those in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Every year, falcon beauty contests and demonstrations take place in Abu Dhabi.

In early English falconry literature, the word "falcon" referred to a female falcon only, while the word "hawk" or "hawke" referred to a female hawk. A male hawk or falcon was referred to as a "tiercel" (sometimes spelled "tercel") as it was roughly one third less than the female in size.
As Hassan took us outside to another exhibit, he mentioned that in addition to being a clinic, the hospital also treats other wild birds and boards small animals. Mice and quail are bred as they are needed in large quantities daily.


Hassan said falcons have very good hearing even though their ears are covered by feathers.
What an impressive animal specimen!
Hassan joked this was the on-site Falcon Hotel as each falcon had its own single room or suite - not too shabby, huh!
The Marshall Radio Telemetry office on the huge hospital campus specialized in selling transmitters for falconers.
This was all part of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital!
As we headed next to the Molting Cage, Hassan revealed that falcons in the wild live in couples. While they stay at the hospital, they live in groups and, because they get used to being around other falcons for five to seven days, they don't get aggressive.
We stayed in the darkened molting cage for a while watching about half a dozen raptors taking turns flying around from their low perches. 
Hassan took us back then to the visitors' center where we had more refreshments before our two hour tour ended.
The tour whetted my appetite to learn more about a sport so famous in the Middle East. The definition of falconry is "the hunting of wild quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained bird of prey." I had read that evidence suggests that the art of falconry may have begun in Mesopotamia, with the earliest accounts dating to approximately 2,000 BC. Historically, falconry was a popular sport and status symbol among the nobles of medieval Europe, the Middle East and Mongolian Empire. The falcon was a symbolic bird of ancient Mongol tribes. There is some disagreement about whether such early accounts document the practice of falconry or are misinterpreted depictions of humans with birds of prey. 
Falconry was largely restricted to the noble classes due to the prerequisite commitment of time, money, and space. In art and in other aspects of culture such as literature, falconry remained a status symbol long after it was no longer popularly practiced.  
Within nomadic societies like the Bedouin, falconry was not practiced for recreation by noblemen. Instead, falcons were trapped and hunted on small game during the winter months in order to supplement a very limited diet. 
I never knew until I did some research for this post that the following words are all associated with falconry: haggard: means caught from the wild as an adult; lure: originally a device used to recall hawks. The hawks, when young, were trained to associate the device (usually a bunch of feathers) with food; rouse: means to shake one's feathers; pounce: referring to a hawk's claws and later derived to refer to birds springing or swooping to catch prey; and finally to turn tail which means to fly
away. 
It had been an interesting visit to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital and I learned a huge amount about falcons and their care in a short amount of time. I sure can't imagine being introduced to the world of falconry in any better place than Abu Dhabi!

Posted on February 20th, 2017 from the air en route back to Denver from a 'lovely' weekend in NYC helping our daughter, Nina, and her boyfriend, Will, celebrate their engagement!

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