Qatar’s mighty hunters: How to train your falcon

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Ashlee

(Author Laura Wrede with her falcon in Qatar. Photo credit: Kamera by Jessie Photography)

By Laura Wrede

After embarking on the quest of becoming a falconer, I couldn’t possibly count how many times I got asked the question: “How did you train your falcon?” Falcons are something wild, almost mystical to most people. While no one asks me how I trained my dog, everyone asks me how one can train a falcon. They’re actually not so different to train. – it all comes down to very similar principles. 

The first step we must realize is: what the animal in question is like in the wild. What is its natural behavior? Where is its place in nature? What is it meant to do? I think what shocks me most is when people think they ‘protect’ animals, or defend their ‘rights’, but feed their dog vegetarian meals. If you want to protect them, learn as much as you can about their nature, their natural diet, and keep it that way. Nature is more intelligent than us – don’t try to outwit her by changing her laws. 

Speaking of which, when I began training my first falcon in Qatar I at first encountered criticism from those with the traditional mindset that falconry was not meant for women. 

I was told once: “You do realize falcons don’t feed on peanuts, but require fresh meat?” Feeling offended at first, looking back, I think I should have taken it with many grains of salt. I realized a lot of people don’t know anything about falcons, (or dogs, or cats) or the behavior and diet of most animals in general. 

A dog is an omnivore, a descendant of the wolf, eating mostly meat but able to eat some limited vegetables and fruits. A falcon is a carnivore, eating only fresh meat.  You do not choose their diets, nature has already chosen for them, and we should respect nature. Anything else is our choice forced onto them – which is by far not the best for them and can end in serious health issues. 

(A sedated falcon undergoes an examination at the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital. Photo credit: Laura Wrede)

A healthy start

At this point you might be thinking, I wanted to know how to train it, not how to feed it. I hear you. You can’t win a race if your car, even if it’s the fastest in the world, doesn’t have fuel. Our food is our fuel. You cannot train an athlete to perform at an Olympic level if their diet is based on fast-food and sugar – it doesn’t matter how well they train, they lack the fuel to perform. So before I train, I make sure the diet of my falcons is balanced and top-quality. Therefore, the food is, really, the first step. 

I also make sure the animal is healthy by performing a full check-up. In Qatar we have the luxury of the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital, as well as several other top clinics. For a full check-up a fecal sample is analyzed, the crop checked, an X-ray taken, and a blood analysis performed. 

With these results we can determine whether the falcon has any bacteria, a virus, or another infectious disease. Also through its blood we can tell whether all hormones and other levels are in order. We check whether any bones are broken or cracked, and if all feathers are intact. The Falcon Hospital is a fascinating place and is really worth a visit also for non-falconers, to get an overview. 

Once the hospital has analyzed all results we determine if the falcon has to be treated for anything, or if it’s healthy. If it has any disease we let the falcon eat very well, and treat it with whatever medication necessary until the falcon is healthy. You should never train an unhealthy dragon – or, in this case, a falcon. It would be cruel, and the results are not the same; if any can be achieved they’ll probably be negative. 

Even if you don’t have a dragon or a falcon, the principles of behavioural training are similar with all animals, and even humans. It’s just that you would want to train a dog to do different things than a falcon – maybe for the reason that one has wings, the other has paws, but I digress. Over the years I’ve seen many unhappy pet owners as they were unable to train their animal and have a harmonious life with it. 

My first falcon was gifted to me by my lovely Qatari friend Fatma Al Sayed, to whom I’m forever grateful to have pushed me to take the leap of faith and become a falconer. Apart from that, there are more possibilities of getting a falcon – it might have been caught somewhere and handled by someone, before it came to you. Or, maybe it was in the chamber with its parents and siblings before it arrived to you. By whichever means your falcon reaches you, there are usually people in the middle that handle the animal, and you can’t always control ‘how’ –  or the impact it has on the falcon. What we try to do with all animals when training is to avoid negative situations as much as we can and build on positive situations. 

(Falcon vs. lizard. Photo credit: Laura Wrede)

Taming the wild

Whenever I receive a falcon, usually hooded, I place it gently on my fist and at the same time tightly tethered. Usually I’m in a room alone, without noise or other distractions, and when I unhood her I immediately offer some food. No peanuts, just fresh meat. Maybe she’ll still be too scared to eat, but at least she saw me in the combination of food – so she’ll think “Laura = yummy meat”. But maybe she will also forget that association and try to fly away. She will quickly understand that she cannot fly away as she’s tethered, so she learns how to return safely to the fist. 

Nothing will harm her, she simply learns that she cannot fly away as she pleases for this moment. I will try to avoid direct eye contact as it might threaten her. All predators are usually threatened by direct eye contact. She will either bate (jump off the fist) several times until she’s tired, or sit still and observe her new surroundings. Either way I will hood her (as it calms falcons), and keep her on my fist for some time or perch her. Every step is done very gently. 

I have to make sure the falcon is perched in a safe area where she can’t be scared by anything, or hurt or entangle herself. It’s best to watch them as much as you can, especially in the beginning. After some calm hours, I can repeat the procedure. Take her onto my glove, unhood her, look somewhere on her feet or on the ground and make sure she sees the fresh meat on the glove at her disposal. This time she’ll remember “Aha! Laura = yummy meat”, and she’ll observe you to make sure this isn’t some kind of trick. She’ll look at you and her surroundings. Again, there are several options, maybe she’ll try to fly away again – in which case she learns “Aha- I’m still tethered”, or she just sits quietly taking everything in, in which case she’ll be a step closer to trusting you. In a lucky case, she could even start eating from the glove. If she bates or sits quietly, after some time I hood her again – just so she knows “Laura = yummy meat” and “Can’t fly away –but still nothing bad happened.” Quick and short associations are better lessons than one where you try to teach your falcon everything at once.

In the lucky event she takes a bite at the food, she’ll take a quick bite and look up again to check if you’re looking at her, or have changed your position. She’s trying to trust you, but testing you. This is a big step – so you must be careful not to look and definitely not to move. Make sure no one is calling you on your cell phone, or bursting into your quiet room during a training session. Any situation where she would be scared will be saved into her memory and take a very long time to re-train. Every animal has a unique character, and falcons are very different from each other too. Some falcons can eat from your glove as quick as immediately, and some can take days – which of course is extremely frustrating as you have to repeat the same procedure multiple times during these days until the falcon learns to trust you. 

(Laura Wrede in Qatar with her falcon Ramas and her Jack Russell terrier Donald. Photo credit: Klaus Leix)

A sacred bond

The key in training is that everything is based on positive reinforcement and trust. A falcon is wild and has wings. If she doesn’t like being with you, or she can’t trust you, she’ll eventually fly away. You can’t rush trust. Some like to give it readily – others are suspicious and take their time; you also have to make sure you take this time and demonstrate through your patience that you can be trusted. From that point onwards you’ll have a strong and, probably forever, lasting relationship. 

This is the main reason that falconry is not only an art, but it has taught many valuable lessons to falconers. Lessons of patience and endurance. Lessons of the importance of trust. There are various stories of kings and other leaders that have become calmer and wiser in their politics thanks to practicing falconry. 

The next steps in training a falcon build on the first training step. She trusts me and when she sees me she goes “Ah! There’s Laura, she must have yummy meat for me”, but based on that knowledge I’ll make it harder. From her perch I will make her jump several centimetres. In the beginning, it will take your falcon time again to evaluate if she feels comfortable to jump from your fist, then you can slowly increase the distance until she flies to you from 100 meters. I repeat this several times. Until she knows that I have her food. We steadily increase this distance and make her fly higher, longer, and farther every time…step-by-step increasing the difficulty, but with the knowledge that I won’t let her down. The basis of trust – which is the same in all relationships. Without trust there is no relationship. 

If you want to learn more about falconry and traditional methods of hunting in Qatar, visit Al Galayel. If you want to learn more about falconry as a living human heritage, visit UNESCO.  

Did you check out the first International Falcons and Hunting Exhibition over the weekend at Katara? If so, drop us a line and tell us your thoughts in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to like and share this article!