How to train a falcon
Squinting up into the sky to watch a falcon dive-bomb at the lure I'm swinging, I have only a frozen second to remember what I've learnt on my two-day course at Banyan Tree al Wadi resort in Ras al Khaimah: always keep your eyes on the bird. If something goes wrong, don't react. And if there's one lesson that stands out at this heart-fluttering moment, it's this: falcons are weapons.
"Falconry is way pre-guns, pre-dogs, pre-horses," my instructor had told me. "Hunting wild quarry with trained birds of prey - that's all that falconry is, really."
If you live in the UAE or have passed through as a tourist, it's likely you've seen a falcon, even if you've never had the chance to hold one on a glove. But this falconry course, offered by Shaheen Xtreme in partnership with Banyan Tree, is something more advanced - not so advanced that you'll be qualified to own one, mind you, but enough to know just how much more you need to know.
About half a dozen people have taken what's billed as the first official falconry course in the Middle East since it was launched last September: mainly expats, one Emirati man and me, thus far the only woman. Shaheen Xtreme, which provides pest control as well as falconry demonstrations, developed the course to cover the basics such as handling, weight management and training.
Arriving early one Friday morning, I am driven by buggy through sand dunes dotted with ghaf trees to the resort's falconry centre, where I'm greeted by Jannes Kruger, a South African whom I come to think of as the eagle whisperer.
The steely authority he gives off when talking about the dangers of handling birds of prey dissolves when he introduces me to them on their perches, as he smiles dotingly and nudges their beaks with his finger. There's a cute little kestrel, a retired white gyr falcon, two Harris hawks, some saker and peregrine falcons, two owls and a fearsome pair of golden eagles.
One of the eagles, Kiran, spends the morning shrieking for his attention. Placing a hood over her head to calm her, Jannes explains why she is his alone to handle. Unlike falcons, eagles develop bonds with people. He demonstrates how he establishes dominance, gently pinning her large wings under his arm and holding her talons in his bare hands.
"A falcon is like a snake with feathers," he says. "An eagle is like a Rottweiler with feathers and an attitude problem."
Jannes suggests that we "begin with a bang" by taking out two falcons, Bullet and Marley. He is training Bullet to hunt in the air using a helium balloon, which he lets up into the air with raw meat attached to a lure, a fringed leather tassel, which looks like a bird to them.
With Marley, he shows me a different technique, swinging the lure on a string in a backward motion at his side to attract the falcon out of the tree, "presenting" it as the bird approaches by slowly letting the line out sideways, then whipping it around and out of the way at the last minute, repeating the motion so Marley has to come back for another pass. Either way, the falcons get exercise with a reward attached - in this case quail parts - when they successfully grab the lure.
We return to our small classroom, where Jannes talks me through a presentation on screen and a book of notes. When designing the course, he sent the material to his peers for review "to satisfy the falconry community at large".
"If you claim to be teaching falconry," he says. "You'd better do it right."
After covering the history of falconry from Genghis Khan to Sheikh Zayed, we shift to anatomy. Females are "the boss", bigger than males, they're "the bodyguards" of the nest.
The bones of some birds of prey are filled with air rather than marrow, making them perfectly suited for flight; the tail serves as a rudder and a brake so it's important to protect the feathers; their eyeballs take up 60 per cent of the cranium, meaning that of all the senses, they rely mostly on sight.
When hooded, birds of prey relax because there's no sensory input. How do you know they're relaxed? They puff out their feathers or hold one foot up in the air.
Their tendons are ratcheted, locking like handcuffs when they grasp onto prey. Falcons have long, slender talons for catching prey mid-air, which they kill with their beaks; hawks and eagles have bigger, stronger talons for grasping and strangling.
After lunch, Jannes takes me outside to demonstrate some of this at work with a Harris hawk, a better bird for beginners than falcons because it's slower in flight and easier to train. But first I have to fasten Salma to my left glove by learning to tie a safety knot with my free right hand, which takes at least a dozen tries.
Jannes fastens a tracking device to Salma's back - something done with every bird in case they fly away - and shows me how to weigh her to make sure she's lean enough for hunting, nudging her off the perch onto a glove and then placing her on the scale while shielding her tail feathers. (Weighing is a daily task, because if the birds are not hungry, they lose their aggression and won't fly to you as readily.)
Salma is remarkably light on the glove, although by day's end my arm aches from holding it outstretched. With a flick of my glove I let her go into the wind, which the birds need for lift. She flies up to a tree and waits while Jannes places a tiny piece of meat between the fingers of my glove. He shows me how to hold up my arm and call her, motioning my other hand towards the glove - the call isn't as important as the hand motion, although both help to draw their attention.
And then, in one thrilling moment, she soars towards me with her talons outstretched and lands perfectly on my glove, plucking the meat from between its fingers. I toss her back into the wind, twisting her off my wrist, and start walking away. Suddenly I hear a whoosh behind me, and she lands on my shoulder blade: it feels like the very sharp nails of two small gardening forks pressing into my skin. I stand perfectly still, trying not to think of those ratcheted tendons, as Jannes untangles one of her talons from my sweater and counsels me to hold up my glove next time so she has somewhere to land.
My heart falls when the first day comes to an end, but it's a comfort to return to my luxury tented bungalow, where I practise tying my safety knot. As I watch an oryx wander by my pool patio, I can't help but feel like Hemingway on a desert hunting trip.
We start the next morning back in the classroom, and after covering the technical details of falcon housing, what to feed them and how to watch for signs of disease, I pass my multiple-choice test with 90 per cent. Jannes presents me with a certificate and a falcon pin, but the real test is to come this afternoon, which brings me back to watching Marley, a saker, dive-bomb from the sky.
For a quick practice swinging the lure, Jannes passes me his bag, which he uses to store the meat and hide the lure from sight until ready. To me, it's like passing the torch. He takes Marley's hood off and lets him fly to a tree. "Now?" I ask, uncertain at how quickly this is all happening. As soon as I take out the lure and start swinging, the falcon swoops down on me.
Jannes promises he'll cue me when to pull the lure out of the way, and he does on the first few passes. Then he leaves it to me. That's when Marley catches me off guard, flying straight up in the air and diving down, coming back for one more pass to catch the lure. Once he does, I drop the lure onto the ground and he sits perfectly poised with one foot on the lure, waiting to be given his reward, as he's been trained to do. Jannes hands him a big piece of raw quail, which he eats with great vigour, snapping the bones in his beak.
"They're basically attacking you. They're hunting you because they know you're where the food's at," Peter Bergh, the director of Shaheen Xtreme, tells me later, as he shows me the photos he has taken of our little rodeo in the air.
Finally able to relax, watching the demonstration that Jannes puts on for tourists at the end of the day, I realise these birds are so much more of a marvel when you understand how they work. He introduces Kiran, his golden eagle, by removing her hood and informing the crowd that if he senses she doesn't like the look of them, he won't be able to fly her. Kiran's evidently nonplussed, but Jannes counsels parents to keep their children close anyway. "It's not safe."
The crowd is full of awe, but I am even more so, watching the eagle swoop down, with her two-metre wingspan, looking like an avian grizzly bear as she grabs a big furry lure that looks like a rabbit.
Returning to the falconry centre, I ask Jannes what I can do next for an intermediate class. "A hunting trip," he tells me. I'm lured.
Classes run from 8am to 7pm for two days and cost Dh2,000, or Dh1,700 for guests staying at Banyan Tree al Wadi. E-mail email@example.com