Tuesday, January 7, 2014

DAY SIXTY NINE - Jeff and I visit the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital

This Christmas Jeff's present was a tour of the U.A.E.  In anticipation of his visit I read through several guide books for the U.A.E., Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I scanned the current issues of Time Out Abu Dhabi and picked up tourism brochures whenever I came upon them. I booked several all-day tours where advance reservations were necessary, and I also put together a little gift bag full of miscellaneous destinations and activities that I'd clipped from the magazines and brochures. I figured on our "free days" he could pick and choose from this Idea Bag. 

The evening before Jeff's last full day here, he went through the bag and decided he'd like to visit the  Abu Dhabi Falcon HospitalI never would have guessed that the two-hour tour of this facility would end up being one of the highlights of his visit, not just for him, but for me as well.
The hospital opened in 1999, and tours were first offered in 2007. There are several buildings on the grounds, but this is the main one and includes offices, the waiting area, treatment rooms, a surgery, and even a post-mortem room.

It was Sunday and Doug's first day back at work following NYU's Winter Break. Jeff and I headed out an hour before the 2:00 pm tour thinking it would give us more than enough time to get to the place. As is the case with most of the destinations around here, there was no street address to give to our cabbie. Instead the website's directions read as follows:

The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is located near the Abu Dhabi International Airport. Its premises can be found on the right side along the Abu Dhabi-Sweihan Road 3 km. after the Sweihan Bridge.

It turned out to be a good 35 minuted drive, and the premises were out of sight and far down a long, dirt side road well off the main highway, not on it. Fortunately the local cabbies are unphased with such "directions" and gamely bounce down dirt tracks when needed. 

We walked in the front door, through a lobby, and found ourselves in the patient waiting room. In the center of the room were several low, astro-turf covered perches for the falcons, and around the perimeter were chairs and sofas for the owner/handlers. The birds were hooded which keeps them in the dark and thus calm.

A falcon waiting his turn for a well-visit. On the average 100 birds or more come through each day. I was stunned at the number. Who knew so many people kept falcons?

There was a large crowd on hand for the tour, including several babies in strollers, toddlers and elementary-aged children who were a bit.... vocal. How's that for being tactful? Our group of tourists were from the US (almost all California residents), Germany, Korea, Australia and France. 

Our tour guide was a young, knowledgeable Emirati man with a delightful sense of humor..... and a lot of patience when it came to dealing with the younger crowd. We went into a display room where he talked to us about falconry in the UAE, past and present. Some facts Jeff and I learned:
  • The bedouins originally used falcons caught in the wild to hunt for food, primarily hare and houbara (a bird).
  • Now falcons are kept for sport only. The ones that are used have been bred in captivity, primarily in Switzerland, Austria, USA, Canada, Australia, and the UAE.
  • It is illegal to catch wild falcons.
  • Three types of falcons are used for sport in the UAE: Peregrine Falcons (the smallest but fastest, and in fact the Peregrine Falcon is the fastest animal on the planet when it goes into a stoop or dive at up to 180mph), the Saker Falcon (pictured on UAE currency), and the Gyr Falcon (the largest and most expensive).
  • The females are significantly larger and stronger than the males, so it is the females that are used in the sport of falconry.
  • Falcons need a passport to travel from country to country. The information on the passport includes what type of falcon it is, its sex, date of birth, and most importantly the identifying number on its leg band and the microchip that is under its skin. There is no photo as when the bird molts each year, the feathers come back in a slightly different color.
  • Falcons can travel uncaged on aircraft, two to a seat. Of course the owner pays for the seat.
  • They eat only meat and are usually fed one quail per day to keep them at their optimum weight.
  • They are expensive! One current website entry I found quoted $275,000, and prize Gyr Falcons can cost considerably more. Falconry is clearly a sport for the privileged. 

Pictured are five, ten and one hundred dirham bills. The Saker Falcon also appears on the one dirham coin. FYI one US dollar = 3.65 dirham

After the lecture and a juice snack, we were ushered into a large treatment room. I would venture to guess that this kind of tour would never happen in the US because of the fear of a lawsuit. A tourist could get hurt and sue the hospital. Or maybe a bird would peck at or scratch a tourist, resulting in a lawsuit. Or just maybe a tourist would accidentally harm one of the pricey birds. Lawsuit. In the US I am quite sure I'd be peeking through a window, but at this place we all circled the perimeter of the room while a vet and his assistant explained the various procedures they performed in the hospital. 

All these falcons have already been treated and are just hanging out in this large treatment room  until their owners retrieve them.

Most birds come to this hospital for well visits which include trimming their talons and beaks. If a bird is sick, it is treated in another room so it doesn't spread disease. The bird is anesthetized for the procedure so it doesn't freak out and hurt itself or the vet.

In the wild a falcon keeps it talons and beak at the proper length and sharp by scratching and pecking at rocks, much like a cat keeps its claws sharp by scratching trees, posts and (sadly) furniture. But when in captivity, a falcon must have this done for him twice year. The little guy in red was fascinated with all of this.

If the talons aren't trimmed, they will grow too long and actually punch through the foot when the bird clenches its feet, resulting in a nasty infection. After the talons are trimmed, the vet uses a Dremel to shape and sharpen them. And look at how close we were able to get while the vet was working! Seveal times the little boy in the left of the photo reached up and petted the tail feathers. 

Once the talons were done, the vet removed the mask from the bird's head and went to work on the beak before it came to. He quickly trimmed the beak back and then shaped and sharpened it with the handy Dremel tool. It took a few minutes for the bird to come fully awake, but once she was okay the vet hooded her and placed her on a bench.

Anyone who wanted to was able to hold a falcon. Jeff is usually loathe to pose and have his picture taken, but in this case he really wanted to hold one of the birds and have me snap a photo. 

I wasn't planning on holding a falcon myself, but Jeff was insistent. A technician placed this little guy on my arm (and since it's small, I'm assuming it's a "guy"). No glove was needed as the talons weren't so fearsome as on the other birds. It was just a beautiful creature!

The final demonstration in the treatment room concerned feeding. The birds are handled all the time to keep them tame, including feeding time. They asked for a volunteer, gloved her, placed a falcon on her wrist and then gave her a dead, plucked quail which the bird proceeded to munch. And I do mean MUNCH because we could hear the quail bones cracking as the bird fed. Clearly those jaws can exert a lot of pressure. 

After the treatment room demonstrations we went outside and toured the landscaped grounds which included an enclosure for a pair of rescued owls, a large flying room where the birds can molt in air-conditioned comfort, and a ward or dormitory for birds that need to be kept for treatment (they each get their own room rather than a cage). We ended at a building that housed a small museum, gift shop and a large dining/conference room. They had a guest book, which I was only too happy to sign.

A falcon hospital. Absolutely fascinating. 


  1. Hey...It's great to see you guys living the good life. Sorry I haven't commented any sooner, but life, as always, has been hectic. Joe gave us twins this Christmas (in vitro fertilization is an absolute miracle) and they have been all consuming.
    Not only are you having the experience of a lifetime, you are writing a book in the process. What wonderful memories!!! Please keep up the blogs. I've enjoyed reading them. Warm regards, Jeff Bouchard

    1. Hi Jeff, How wonderful to hear from you! I passed along your note to Doug, and when he isn't running around like a crazy-man, he'll shoot you an email. He has a challenging role here, but he is loving it. Congratulations on the grandchildren. Twins! I expect "all consuming" will describe all your lives for quite awhile now. I'll definitely keep up the blog - I am enjoying writing them, and they are serving as my journal. We're here through September at the very least, so stay tuned!
      All the best,

  2. Replies
    1. P.S. Oh yeh! Although Doug thinks his hair went from blonde to brown to ash blonde. He was startled when just yesterday someone referred to his "silver hair".