Excitement gripped the desert air as competitors and spectators gathered daily in Doha’s desert for more than three weeks during the Fourth Annual Qatar International Falcons and Hunting Festival, which concludes in early February.
The mighty birds of prey perched unassumingly with their tiny heads ensconced in tight leather helmets, Mary Coons discovered, mostly oblivious to what was transpiring around them.
The annual event is widely recognized as one of the Gulf’s largest festivals in the specialized field of falcons and hunting. Competitions break down between falcon age categories, local and international tournaments, type of competition, and the coveted beauty contest.
Malika Mohamed Al Shraim, the event’s public relations specialist, explained that a saker falcon generally has a 20-plus year life span. Training begins after the bird is a year old and it is imperative that the falcon bonds strongly with its owner. An exceptional falcon can cost up to $150,000.
According to Ms. Al Shraim, major festival objectives included balancing between meeting the immediate needs and requirements of preserving the environment and falconry heritage; preserving the sport of falconry; urging young people to respect wildlife in general and protect falcons as an endangered species; and finally, educating young people as to the importance and identity of falconry traditions.
Falconry has been a prominent tradition of all GCC countries’ heritage for thousands of years. The hobby, strongly rooted in the Bedouin culture, has been passed down and preserved through the generations and is a well-known practice in the Gulf. The falcon represents values of loyalty, courage and perseverance; all important Bedouin lifestyle attributes.
“A challenge,” explains Ms. Al Shraim, “is to have three generations of falconers. Most young people today have no interest in falconry. Although my father had a falcon when I was growing up, I didn’t pay any attention to the bird or the sport. We are actively trying to change that mindset.”
The Qatar festival organizers believe falconry remains an essential part of its cultural heritage, “which makes breeding and training of these birds important to strengthen the Qatari society link with its history,” Ms. Al Shraim told me.
The most common type of falcon in the Middle East is the saker (saqr). Kings and emirs own pure white Gyrfalcons, the largest and most powerful falcons, and the most revered.
As the Arabs settled in for an afternoon of falconry in the pleasant late January winter, a steady stream of Westerners found their way to the event as well. It was a welcome sight to see others interested in this Bedouin sport.
The Al Da’o competition was scheduled the day I attended. This timed event measures the launching speed of the falcon over 400 meters (1,312 feet – almost the length of four football fields). Most of the birds instinctively flew low to the ground once released focused on the feather at the finish line. The winning bird crossed over in just under 18.6 seconds. Most came in between 19.5 and 20.5 seconds.
It was not all perfect, however, as when one falcon was released it flew up and then circled around the back of the start line searching for its owner resulting in disqualification. Many of the birds flew too high in the air losing valuable time. Big screen monitors were positioned to show the bird in flight as well as the time clock.
Earlier in the week was the juvenile peregrine falcon championships, where releasing a dove starts the competition. The falcon tries to catch it or surround it in one place. Ms. Al Shraim noted that of the 199 falcons during the past week that participated in this competition, only two caught the dove.
The Most Beautiful Falcon
Curious as to how a falcon is judged for its beauty, I put the question to Ms. Al Shraim. After first explaining that the male and female look similar, she got specific with the judging criteria. The most beautiful bird – which by the way, wins $150,000 and a gold feather encrusted with diamonds for its owner – should possess thick eyebrows, large eyes and beak, its head size must correlate with its body size, and it should have long talons. The color and length of feathers are also factors. The fewer brown spots and lighter color of the feathers, the better, as well as the requirement of a long tail feather.
Most falconers wear thick leather gloves to protect their arms from the bird’s talons, but many Arabs choose a type of stiff cuff that wraps around the hand instead of gloves. It is not unusual to see these cuffs, known as mangalas, sporting intricately woven designs to signify the artistic and regal allure of the sport.
Hoods are placed over the bird’s head when perched or on an arm/glove to keep them calm. The simple helmet design is made from stiff leather and occasionally may feature beads or some other type of ornamentation.
If you have never seen a falcon competition and have the opportunity, it is quite interesting. As with any sport, the pressure is on, and the results are not always as expected. And that’s all part of the excitement.