In Qatar, the ancient sport of falconry gets some upgrades
Falconry hobbyists gather outside of Al Khor, Qatar, on Nov. 29, 2022, to train their falcons for hunting competitions. The training regimen now involves drones, but doomed pigeons are still in the mix.
By CHRISTINA GOLDBAUM
Just before dusk in a desolate stretch of Qatari desert, Saqr al-Humaidi slipped on a worn leather glove and readied his falcon for its daily training. Coaxing the bird out of the back seat of his Toyota Land Cruiser, al-Humaidi, 40, removed a round hood from its head and nodded to his cousin to prepare the target: a live pigeon attached to a small red parachute that, in turn, was tied to a drone.
Fiddling with a remote control, his cousin launched the drone into the cool evening air. It dragged the pigeon higher and higher until all that could be seen was a red speck dancing across the washed-out sky. As if sensing a shift in the air, the falcon tilted its head, ruffled its pointed wings and took off in pursuit.
The hunt was on.
Every evening, al-Humaidi; his 13-year old son, Talal; and a handful of relatives come to this spot near the city of Al Khor, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Doha, to train their falcons for hunting competitions. It is a rite of passage passed down through generations of his family, and a touchstone of Qatari culture linking the country’s present to its Bedouin past.
Al-Humaidi’s great-grandfather was raised here when it was still a poor sliver of a country in the Gulf. He once used the birds to hunt for small animals — adding a bit of protein to his family’s sparse diet. But as Qatar became affluent with the discovery of vast gas reserves, one of its oldest traditions was transformed as well.
Long before soccer fever swept Qatar, peaking with its hosting of the World Cup this year, the sport of falconry was a point of national pride.
These days, it has assumed a mostly symbolic role in society. The birds are kept as pets and often trained by Qatari men — few if any women are involved in the hobby — for racing competitions with cash prizes of tens of thousands of dollars as well as new cars.
As the migrant workforce on which the country relies has swelled, owning the birds has also become a sort of status symbol, a visible way of identifying oneself as Qatari in a country where citizens are outnumbered 8 to 1. Nearly everyone involved is a Qatari citizen, al-Humaidi said.
In the sky above him, his falcon dipped and swerved, drawing closer and closer to the pigeon as the drone pulled the prey through the sky.
“See how he’s chasing it,” said al-Humaidi’s cousin, Mohammad Ali al-Mohannadi, as he gently maneuvered the throttle on the drone’s remote.
Drones are a relatively new addition to the training, introduced in the past decade or so, he said.
Before that, the men would attach a pigeon to a kite and release it into the sky for the falcons to chase. And before that, trainers would take a sack of pigeon meat, cover it with feathers, attach it to a rope and swing it in circles.
Nowadays, the men try to keep the bird in pursuit for at least 10 minutes a day to strengthen its muscles. The faster the falcon moves its wings, the more advanced a hunter it is, al-Mohannadi said.
If the bird seems lethargic, it could be a sign that it needs more practice or is drained from the previous day’s workout.
“They are like any animal: They get sick. They get tired sometimes. They go for 15 minutes one day, and the next day, we find them down with exhaustion,” he explained, eyes glued to the bird in the sky.
As the falcon snatched the pigeon, al-Mohannadi screamed, “It’s done!” and released the red parachute connecting the prey to the drone. The men then raced to where the falcon had landed to retrieve it, the dead pigeon clasped in its long, curved talons.
Wrapped around the falcon’s ankle was a small bracelet inscribed with al-Humaidi’s phone number, in case the bird did not return to him during training and someone found it perched on their roof. Stroking the bird’s nape, al-Humaidi gently removed a GPS device — another safety net — and rearranged its feathers with care.
Losing one of the birds could be expensive; the best racing falcons are worth millions of dollars, and even those kept as pets often run into the tens of thousands.
Al-Humaidi’s falcon cost him a relatively modest amount, about $2,000, he said.
It was a peregrine, one of two kinds of falcons that dominate in the Gulf, and a species known for its speed and courage as well as sensitivity.
“You must take special care of him, more than with others,” he explained.
As the blood-red sun slipped below the horizon, the men packed up their blankets and tea and placed the falcons back in their Land Cruisers. It was a relaxed training day, they explained.
Unlike many other falconers, they did not plan to enter their birds into the large hawking competition that takes place in Qatar each January.
The competitions can be fierce and the training required grueling.
The event involves a series of challenges that test a bird’s eyesight, speed and hunting prowess. In one of the contests, the falcons race to catch pigeons that have been trained all year to evade them.
Last year, the pigeons were so good that they evaded capture by every single falcon entered. The pigeons won the right to go on living, and their trainer took home that contest’s prize.