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Pursuits October 2014: Regal Nature

The dawn sky is pink over the apricot dunes in the Wadi Khadeja desert outside Dubai, and the wind is blowing dry and hot. Erin Human, a master falconer, is fretting about the possibility of a sandstorm as we step into a low, mud-brick building that is quarters for about a dozen falcons, hawks, and other birds of prey.

We find Pandora, a calidus European peregrine falcon, luxuriating in her air-conditioned, private pen. She wears a leather hood, which helps calm her, though she is alert and turns her head at our approach. Even hooded, her carriage is regal. Her dark wings rest against her sides, but they are lined with the same white feathers speckled with black that coat her chest, almost akin to the ermine fur of royal robes. Her bright-yellow feet seem large for her 2-pound body, with four black talons curling like miniature scythes. Her beak has a deep hook to it, giving her the air of a dignified Roman in profile.

Human lifts Pandora to one of her shoulders, talking to her softly. On the other shoulder sits Salma, a Harris’s hawk, the second bird we will fly this morning, before the temperature soars to the 110-degree mark. On the falconry deck—an incongruous expanse of lawn—Human sets down a cadge, or perch, that looks like an oversized croquet wicket, then transfers each hooded bird from her arm to it. They are unthreatened by the proximity of another bird of prey because they cannot see each other. But they are restless, anticipating breakfast, fluffing their feathers and making periodic cacking cries.

The art of falconry—the taking of wild quarry with trained birds of prey, be they hawks, falcons, kestrels, owls, or eagles—is an ancient one, with images of falconry found on cave paintings at prehistoric sites. It is believed to have begun in earnest in central Asia about 4,000 years ago, not as a sport, but as a hunting technique for acquiring food. Falcons are not native to the Arabian Peninsula (thus, the air-conditioned mews), but they are a significant part of the culture. More than two millennia ago, Bedouins first captured wild falcons to use as hunting partners as the birds passed through the region during their winter migration from Asia to Africa. The nomads would train the falcons to tolerate both human touch and desert camps filled with activity. With their keen eyesight, the birds could become agitated around so much movement, and eventually the falcon hood was used to block the birds’ field of vision.

“Unlike Europe, falconry here remained a hunting pursuit rather than just a sport until 60 years ago when oil was discovered,” Human says. “That recently, they were still using falcons for acquiring food.” As the United Arab Emirates grew wealthier, the practice of hunting with falcons gradually changed over to a sport, practiced increasingly by those with the means to purchase the birds and fund elaborate hunts.

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Falcons remain a symbol of wealth and power in the UAE. The birds garner upward of $10,000 apiece, and mastering them takes skill and patience over many years. The falcon’s regal visage adorns the Emirati currency, and airlines in the region like Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s official airline, allow the birds to travel in the main cabin with the falconer—hooded, though not necessarily caged. It is not out of the question to see a cabin with a small flock of birds perched on tray tables: While many of the region’s sheiks have a multitude of falcons and falconers on staff for dramatic cross-desert hunts, today such excursions must take place outside the UAE, often in Morocco or Pakistan. It is no longer legal to hunt with falcons here, and many desert species are protected.

However, it is possible to experience working with birds of prey at Banyan Tree Al Wadi, a desert resort in the northernmost Emirate, Ras al-Khaimah. About an hour northeast of Dubai, it is one of only a few resorts across the globe to offer a serious falconry program, and is the first in the UAE. Among the other locations, the most prominent is Gleneagles resort in Scotland, home to the world’s first falconry school—the British School of Falconry—founded by the preeminent falconers Emma and Steve Ford. The Fords have trained many falconers over the years, and the alumni of their programs have gone on to open schools around the globe, including one of the most extensive falconry programs in the United States at the Omni Homestead Resort in western Virginia, led by Linda Spence.

At Banyan Tree, enthusiasts can enjoy a simple demonstration or a two-day course, all under the tutelage of Human and her colleagues. On the falconry deck, she moves Pandora from the perch to her gloved fist, and she demonstrates the fluid motion of removing the bird’s hood, then rolling it up her torso and back onto her head. She touches Pandora’s long toes, running a finger along the sharp talons, and the bird does not even twitch, having fully accepted Human—and a human touch—as part of her daily routine. “It’s an education for you as much as the bird,” Emma Ford says, “a chastening experience where you learn to be polite to a wild animal.”

Peregrine falcons are not only the fastest recorded raptors but one holds the record as the fastest creature in the world. Frightful, a peregrine owned by an American falconer in Washington state, was clocked flying 242 mph in her dive (known as a “stoop”) to catch her prey in 2005. They are long-winged birds of prey, with a wingspan of up to 3 feet, so they prefer open spaces—making the Arabian Peninsula’s deserts an ideal place for both the falcon and the falconer.

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Before she releases Pandora, Human explains the falcon’s unique attributes, including the tough feet used to kill her quarry in midair or at least stun it to the ground. The sharp beak has a notch on its edge, called a tomial tooth, for leverage in snapping the neck of her prey. Her black eyes can spot an Arabian hare two football fields in the distance, and a third, transparent eyelid protects each eye when she is in her swift stoop. She sees in full color and in a higher frame rate. While the human eye sees only the blur of a bird in flight, the falcon sees every feather and beat of its wings. The raptors have excellent hearing, able to pick up the slight rustle of quarry hiding in a fire bush. Everything about Pandora is designed for her aerial sprint: her light weight, her streamlined feathers, and nostrils that diffuse air to protect her lungs and circulate oxygen to fill the air sacs in her bones.

Once again Human removes the bird’s leather hood (“hood off equals brain on,” she says) and Pandora’s sharp eyes take in the surroundings with a swivel of her head. At Human’s signal, Pandora takes off into the wind, which has kicked up into a sandstorm. She soars over the dunes that are part of a 500-hectare nature preserve. With few breezes over the last few days, she takes advantage of the thermals and hangs in the air, where her keen vision allows her to spy the details of life on the land beneath her.

Other birds snag her attention, as do the herds of oryx and gazelle that roam the property, and the camels and horses kept in the nearby stables. She can clearly detect the rabbits, snakes, and scorpions creeping out of their sandy homes in the crepuscular light. Her vision is so acute that she can even see the veins in the leaves of the ghaf trees. She makes a few halfhearted attempts toward a lure at the end of a leather leash when Human begins to swing it in a circle, calling to her. But the temptation of the breeze—despite the scrim of sand now in the air—takes Pandora up to a treetop, where she perches with her wings spread wide, imperious.

Human explains that Pandora has no particular attachment to her, but rather sees the falconer as a food source. The bond between falcon and human is based firmly on trust, and, as Human says, the bird’s natural laziness. Pandora knows that at the end of the lure is a meal that will take much less effort than would catching a wild animal on her own. “Falcons want the easiest meal,” Human says. “They have a fast metabolism, so they conserve their energy for the hunt.” When Pandora finally takes a serious pass at the quail tied to the lure, Human lets her catch it, and she devours it from Human’s gloved hand. Then Human slips the hood back over Pandora’s head, and it is Salma’s turn to fly.

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Finer Feathers

Falcon hoods are small, beautiful objects, made of soft leather so as to not irritate the birds’ eyes, and ornamented with sporting details such as feathers, bells, beads, and tassels. They are collectible items apart from the sport, with fine vintage examples fetching thousands at auction.

Today, some of the most prized hoods are made by Tiroler Goldschmied, a jeweler in Tirol, Italy, in collaboration with the world’s premier hood maker, Giancarlo Pirrotta. Their one-of-a-kind hoods begin with supple skins such as stingray, lizard, deer, and crocodile, which are delicately stitched by Pirrotta. Then the jeweler adorns them with 18-karat-gold insignias, family crests, or personal initials, as well as diamonds, emeralds, and pearls. It takes three to four months to make a single custom falcon hood that costs $6,700 to $53,000.

“Each piece is as unique, mysterious, and graceful as the falcons themselves,” says Hannes Gamper, Tiroler Goldschmied’s chief executive director and a recent falconer himself. He became interested in the sport after working with Pirrotta, about whom he says with both respect and humor, “Mr. Pirrotta divides his time between his only job—falconry—and his only passion—falconry.” +39.0473.92.34.92, www.tirolergoldschmied.it

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Call of the Wild

While the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula are ideal for falconry, the sport also has strong roots in the United Kingdom and has even leapt the pond to the New World. Here are four exclusive resorts where guests can try their hand at the sport of royals—or just meet a new feathered friend.

Banyan Tree Al Wadi, United Arab Emirates

Banyan Tree’s desert property northeast of Dubai offers daily falconry shows ($70), 120-minute private interactive experiences ($250), and hour-long hawk walks through the surrounding 500-hectare nature reserve ($50). For more serious enthusiasts, a two-day, 16-hour course ($1,200) includes practical training for handling falcons, hawks, and owls such as tying a falconry knot, filing talons and beaks, and hooding the birds. Food preparation is covered, as well as how to determine a bird’s ideal hunting weight (a full bird will not fly). Students also learn manning a bird, or “introducing the bird to the world of man,” as falconer Erin Human says, and the light-rope work called creance.

+971.7.206.7777, www.banyantree.com

Gleneagles, Scotland

Two of the world’s most renowned falconers, Emma and Steve Ford, run their school, the British School of Falconry, out of this resort. Guests and other visitors at the hotel, which is surrounded by 850 acres of moorland, can watch demonstrations with the Ford’s sakar falcons, Harris’s hawks, and eagles. They might also participate in lessons or a certification course that covers manning, hooding, using a lure, and making hoods and perches, as well as husbandry tasks such as filing beaks and talons. The Fords also lead hunts with the raptors through the nearby heath and woodlands. Prices range from $140 for an introductory lesson to $1,120 for a nine-day course. +44.800.389.3737, www.gleneagles.com

The Omni Homestead Resort, Virginia

Falconer Linda Spence leads beginner and advanced classes at this western Virginia property, and also arranges game hunts at a nearby preserve. Hunts involve working with Harris’s hawks, which “follow on” from the treetops as guests flush the prey—typically pheasants or quail—from the brush. Participants may take their quarry dressed to take home to cook. Lessons range from $74 to $135; private hunts are $2,400 for up to four people. 540.839.1766, www.thehomestead.com

Montage Laguna Beach, California

At this resort, as at several others along the Pacific Coast, amber-eyed hawks that are native to the southwestern United States are used as pest control for the local bird population: They stake out their territory and keep gulls from swooping in to steal an alfresco lunch. While no falconry lessons are offered, guests in-the-know can keep an eye out for the resort’s Harris’s hawks and kestrels, and request a discussion with a trained falconer about the birds’ life of luxury at the resort. 949.715.6000, www.montagehotels.com

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