Photo: Men flying falcons in the desert

Historically practiced by the Bedouin, falconry is now a popular pastime in Abu Dhabi.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

By Carl Hoffman

The Bedouin lived for millennia in the desert, a harsh, unforgiving place that required developing every available tool for harvesting its scarce resources. The ultimate hunting weapon in such an austere environment: falcons. Today, even as Abu Dhabi has become rich, the old ways persist, and behind almost every camel stable and desert retreat is an aviary of saker falcons. Though hunting is severely restricted in Abu Dhabi itself and falconers travel to hunt with their birds in places like Syria or Iraq, the birds must be flown and trained daily.

Mubarak Thulib al Mazrouei’s two birds are big, 18 inches (46 centimeters) high, and beautiful, all sharp talons and speckled, with hoods covering their eyes. His newest bird cost $20,000. Out in the desert al Mazrouei removes the birds' hoods, revealing huge round eyes like black marbles. The birds bolt skyward (each one with a GPS transmitter attached to its tail feathers) fast, capable of 200 miles an hour (322 kilometers an hour), and especially adept at hunting close to the ground in open terrain.

Al Mazrouei whirls a feathered, baited lure, and as the bird dives for it, yanks it away. The falcon reels, screams in again, and again al Mazrouei snatches the lure away. He’s teaching the bird to come in after the prey and then come in again if it misses its quarry on the first strike. Next, he releases a live pigeon. Though its wings are clipped, it flees surprisingly fast, a dark speck in the twilight. No matter; the falcon is like an F-16 fighter with million-dollar radar. It’s on the pigeon, chasing it and closing in from behind, with uncanny skill, and soon eating dinner.

As the sun drops, al Mazrouei is happy; his bird perched on his wrist, he takes a drink of water and shoots a thin stream into the falcon’s open beak, man and bird in perfect, ageless synchrony.

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