Falcon Culture

A fledgling falcon, still covered with its puffy brown feathers of babyhood, huddled in a corner outside of the ice cream shop. It was the beginning of ...

Nov 30, 2013

A fledgling falcon, still covered with its puffy brown feathers of babyhood, huddled in a corner outside of the ice cream shop. It was the beginning of summer, early May of last year, and falcons around the UAE were learning to take flight. This one had fallen out of its nest and was alone and vulnerable when current junior Sachith Cheruvatur found it.
“I found him [or] her — the sex is very hard to determine at this age, unless lab tests are conducted — next to the Baskin Robbins at Sama Tower, chilling in the corner,” said Cheruvatur. “I couldn't leave him there to eventually be found by the cats that roam around Sama.”
Falcons, a national symbol of the UAE, are highly prized in both the country and around the region. They are often kept in captivity, not so much as family pets but as hunting companions, valued for their speed and intelligence, and as a reminder of Emirati cultural heritage. Many falcons, such as the baby that fell from its nest, still roam wild in the UAE.
Cheruvatur brought the young falcon, which was no more than a couple weeks old, back to his dorm room until another solution could be found. He looked after the bird for about several weeks; caring for it, feeding it and teaching it to fly.
Courtesy of Chani Gatto
Courtesy of Chani Gatto
One of Cheruvatur's friends, senior Chani Gatto, helped him to look after the falcon. However, they were aware that it was not a long-term solution. The semester was coming to an end and so they searched for another home for the falcon. Donations were contributed from the NYU Abu Dhabi community to take it to a falcon center.
Photo By Clare Hennig
Photo By Clare Hennig
“I contacted the falcon hospital in Abu Dhabi and they said I could bring him over,” said Cheruvatur. “They said they would take care of him and eventually let him out [into the wild] when he was ready.”
The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the largest veterinary facility for falcons in the world, cares for wild falcons and captive ones alike. It has all the modern amenities any hospital would have: operating tables, check-up rooms, intensive care units and facilities for in-patients staying the night. The only difference is that everything is scaled down in size, with an aviary twist. The waiting rooms are filled with green, felt perches for the falcons instead of chairs and the sounds of indignant squawks fill the air.
Mohamed Nafeez, a senior veterinary technician who has worked at the hospital ever since it opened in 1999, said that the hospital treats more than 6,000 falcons each year. The falcons are brought for a variety of different reasons, from annual check-ups to more serious ailments.
“Normally, at the beginning of the season, we have a lot of check-ups,” Nafeez said, gesturing to the falcons huddled in the examination room behind him. The birds are dropped off in the morning and picked up in the afternoon, after undergoing a general medical examination.
Nafeez demonstrated one of the procedures. He laid a falcon on the medical table and, putting its head in an anesthetic-dispensing tube, put it to sleep. He then began to clip the falcon’s talons, joking about the pedicure services offered by the hospital, and trimmed its beak.
Other procedures are not as simple as this one, Nafeez explained. Often times, birds are brought in with illness or injuries that require weeks of healing and stay in the hospital’s rehabilitation centers.
“The season starts and people start training or hunting,” said Nafeez, “Then we are facing other problems; birds that are attacked by other birds or falcons, fractures, injuries … birds that are not flying or eating. These kind of problems [occur] during the hunting season.”
Falconry has been practiced in the UAE for centuries; hunting with trained falcons was a vital way to procure meat, such as desert hares, to supplement the Bedouin diet. Hunting is still widely practiced nowadays, as a sport, with the same level of prestige and respect allocated to it as in the past.
“In those days, they used [falcons] to supplement the daily diet,” Nafeez said. “Nowadays, it is completely different. They do it as a sport or hobby — falconry became part of the culture. It’s in our blood.”
Photo By Clare Hennig
Photo By Clare Hennig
Hunting can be recreational, such as expeditions with family and friends, or competitive at an international level. As a mark of the high value falcons have, for example, those who travel to other countries to compete are allowed to be brought as carry-on and un-caged by certain airlines, such as Etihad. With its airplane ticket and own passport — listing information such as its age, breed and tracking number — the falcon is one of the few animals, along with special service dogs that are allowed to be brought in the cabin.
Efforts are made to preserve this aspect of Emirati culture. Organizations, such as the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Project and the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency, aim to keep falconry sustainable. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital offers educational tours to school children and tourists twice a day to teach them the history and importance of falconry in the UAE.
Emirati senior Ahmed Al Masaood, who was gifted a falcon of his own by his family several years ago, has participated in several hunting trips. He agrees that falconry has remained an important part of the culture and something close to his own heart.
“Traditionally, it is deeply rooted in our culture,” said Al Masaood. “It’s more of a symbol than a pet; [falconry] is very much liked and hopefully [will be] preserved. We don’t want to lose this.”
Clare Hennig is features editor. Email her at
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