The success of the recently concluded 8th Fazza championship organised by the Hamdan Bin Mohammad Heritage Centre in Dubai — which drew several young and old trainers including the only woman falconer — bears testimony to the revival of the ancient sport. Elaborating on falconry being an integral part of the Emirati identity, Souad Darwish, director for the Fazza championships said: “Traditionally, falconry has been practised in several parts of the world, including East Asia and some parts of Africa, but the majority of falconers are known to come from the Middle Eastern region. However, in the UAE, the falcon is a national symbol of the country and falconry one of the oldest surviving traditions of the UAE and the reason why there have been earnest efforts in recent time to revive it.”
The sweat behind the spectacle
Training of falcons begins the moment they come into the world in the breeding farms. The species which compete in the events are the Gyr, the Perigrine and the Shaheen falcons.
The essential difference in falconry then and now is that it has today evolved into an organised sport. Training a falcon demands the highest level of skill, patience and determination from both the falconer (who launches the bird) and the handler (who lures the bird to the prey using his voice).
Before the start of the training session, the falcon’s eyes are covered with a leather hood while it sits perched on the gloved arm of the falconer. Falconers must establish a bond with their falcons for them to be able to successfully command them.
The hood is then removed and the bird is called by a handler a few feet away and lured with some raw bait. In some competitions, live pigeons may be used. The distance between the falcon and the bait is increased as the training progresses and the falcon is rewarded with pieces of raw poultry every time he performs correctly. Falcons are generally fed medium-sized birds such as pigeon, duck and chicken.
A chip or detector is attached to a falcon when it is still young so that they can be traced if they wander or get lost. A rope is also tied to the falcon to estimate the distance from the bait. Falcons are always fed gradually as part of their training until they attain a certain age. A falcon is not fed for at least 24-48 hours prior to the race, so that it remains hungry and can perform to its optimum.
The actual event
In most falconry competitions, the falconer stands at the start line of an enclosed area with his bird (eyes covered with a hood and feet tethered to his hand glove). When his name is called he proceeds to remove the hood of the bird and free it of its restraints. Some distance away (in this case, 400 metres), the ‘da’o’ or handler calls to the bird as he swings some bait in the air. The falconer then crouches down at the start line and with a burst of energy lunges and lets his falcon go. The falcon flies towards the bait and the time taken to get to the bait is recorded. The falcon that gets to the bait in the quickest time is the winner. The rest of the falconers line up and carry on in the same fashion until the scores can be finally tabulated.
Tradition vs. modernity
Novel ways of tempting falcons to go for prey have been devised, including the use of parachutes, balloons and small remote control airplanes to which some bait has been attached. The falcon is then released and it goes after the bait.
What really makes a falcon an ace at racing
It comes down to the individual skill of the falcon and the falconer. Patience, determination and keen observation are the key to master this sport. Falcons need to be trained when they are young so that they can respond to their trainers. The younger falcons tend to be smaller and faster, but the older falcons are easily more disciplined as they have been racing for years and know what they have to do.
Today, several falcons that compete in competitions are imported from Europe when they are young, so that they can suitably adapt to the climatic conditions in the UAE. The speed and concentration of the falcons are of prime importance.
One of the highlight of this years event was the young child falconers. The youngest this year was four years old. It is usually the father, grandfather or uncle of the falconer who trains and suitably grooms the younger falconer. Bonding with the falcon, caressing it to recognise its owner, feeding it and training it at least 3 times a week to fly for a short distance are some of the basics.
It is more difficult to become a da’o (handler who lures the falcon to the bait) and usually the falconer needs to be between 9-14 years of age to be able to command the falcon effectively. A strong voice is one of the prerequisites since the da’o needs to use his voice continuously to reach out to the falcon and draw it closer to the prey. This, coupled with waving the bait in a certain way at the finish line, leads the falcon to it successfully.
Different categories and events
The Fazza Championships have seen a variety of falcons competing, including the Horr Farakh (young falcon), Horr Jirnas (older falcon), Shaheeh farakh, and Pure Gyr falcons. The competition was divided into categories for the general public, Shaikhs, juniors and khaleejis (falconers from the rest of the GCC).