While in Abu Dhabi, we visited the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH). The ADFH was established in 1999 and has treated over 75,000 falcons. It is the largest falcon hospital in the world and features state of the art technology. Falconry (hunting with falcons) is a sport popular among the UAE elite, and owning falcons is a sign of wealth and prestige. The richest sheikhs are known to own hundreds of falcons. The tradition comes from the Bedouin, an Arab semi-nomadic group which descended from nomads and historically inhabited the Arabian and Syrian deserts.
There are over 40 species of falcons. The three species most common in the UAE are the peregrine, saker, and Gyr falcons. The largest of all falcon species is the Gyr Falcon, which can be purchased for about 500,000 AED (approximately $136,000!!!). The saker falcon is the national bird of the UAE. Falcons are like family to their owners and often sleep in their owners’ bedrooms and go many places with them. There are falcon shows and exhibitions, where people bring their falcons to compete for contests in beauty and training - just like dog shows in Western culture! The sport of falconry is not permitted in the wild in the UAE, so people who want to hunt with their falcon(s) have their falcon(s) catch farmed food (quail or rabbits) or must go outside UAE for hunting in the wild. In the wild, falcons typically hunt larger birds and hares. Hunting season lasts from September to March, and people from the UAE typically travel to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Morocco for hunting. To leave the UAE, Falcons must have their own passport. Airlines based out of the UAE have special policies to accommodate falcons, similar to how dogs and cats are treated in the United States. On these airlines, passengers can purchase a seat for their falcon on the plane in any of the cabins. The seats are lined with a special cloth to make sure that any “accidents” en route are contained. Despite the hospitality towards falcons, some of the richer falcon enthusiasts prefer to charter private jets (!!!) to transport their prized pets [the second to last picture above is a photo of a photo a hospital employee showed us of a jet full of falcons].
Learning about falconry and its importance to the UAE culture was intriguing. At the hospital, Falcons can be groomed (have feathers replaced, nails cut, etc.), and also seen for medical care. The ADFH is highly rated as one of the best activities to do in Abu Dhabi, and I see why. It was super informative and also hands-on. We got to touch some feathers and even hold the falcons (terrifying!). One brave tour participant got to feed a falcon! I think it may be somewhat common to see photos of Emiratis and other middle easterners with falcons, so learning about the history of falconry and significance in their culture was an enlightening experience and gives new meaning to these images. If you ever visit Abu Dhabi, I highly recommend taking a tour. I don’t even like birds - I’m afraid of them! - and had no interest in going but Marquette convinced me and it turned out to be a great experience.