The Sticking Place

Briton Helps Falcons Learn to Live

by Vincent J. Schodolski

Peter Whitehead lifted the dead mouse and gently placed it on a small platform on the corner.

Then, hands thrust deeply into his pockets, he dropped the head even with the ledge where the mouse lay and began to bob up and down.

Barely audible clucking and warbling sounds issued from his throat. He rolled his shoulders rhymically and scratched his feet on the earthern floor.

Just inches from Whitehead’s lips a glassy-eyed male falcon began to move in an almost perfect imitation of the sandy-haired Englishman. The falcon puffed out his feathers and proudly strutted across the platform in a near trance.

“He either thinks he is a human, or that I am a bird,” Whitehead said.

Ever since he was hatched in this aviary on an isolated ridge near the highest point in Saudi Arabia, this Saker falcon has been isolated from other birds. His only contact with the outside world has been through Whitehead.

His keeper fed and protected him as he grew. Now that the falcon has reached sexual maturity, the bird and Whitehead are courting.

“It is all a matter of the male proving he is a good hunter,” Whitehead said, explaining the elaborate ritual involving the mouse the falcon had killed in his cage a few minutes before his keeper entered. By sharing the dead mouse and by expressing gratitude with his mating dance, Whitehead responded to the bird’s advances.

If all goes well, Whitehead will be able to artificially inseminate a female Saker in a cage just down the corridor with semen from the young male, and take another step toward rebuilding the falcon population of southwestern Saudi Arabia.

Whitehead, who bred falcons in England for 10 years, came to the kingdom’s Asir province at the invitation of its governor, Prince Khaled al Faisal bin bin Abdulaziz. The prince a son of the late King Faisal, brought Whitehead here to help in his project to bring the Saker back to Asir, a rugged and lush mountain area along the North Yemen border.

There are now 100 falcons living in tidy cages of whitewashed cinder block built in a compound near the peak of the 10,5000 Mt. Sawdah. Working mainly himself, Whitehead has “mated” with dozens of the birds through a process called imprinting.

Each falcon is isolated from birth. As the falcons grow, they each develop a personality and a manner of behavior imprinted on them by their teacher. Thus, Whitehead is able to catch both male and female birds at just the right moment in their sexual cycles to ensure successful breeding.

“In the case of the female, it is a matter of inseminating about two hours before she lays her eggs,” Whitehead said.

That means careful monitoring. Outside each cage, charts hanging on metal clipboards provide an hour-by-hour record of the bird’s behavior, eating habits and such biological details as temperature and growth rate.

“They all have different temperaments,” Whitehead said as he walked slowly along the narrow hallway that separates rows of cages. “Some are very friendly, some are bitchy and some are downright seductive.”

But breeding the falcons is just the start of the process. “A captive bird like this does not know how to hunt, or even fly,” Whitehead said.

Previously, birds bred in captivity have not matured as powerful hunters partly because they never developed the lung capacity for sustained flight at high speeds and for the 200 m.p.h. dives wild hunting birds use to swoop down on their prey. That shortcoming has made birds bred in captivity less attractive to falconers who use them for sport hunting.

To overcome the problem, the bird is placed on one of the perches Whitehead has set up atop Mt. Sawdah. The bird is then coaxed into going wild. It is forced to find its own food and encouraged to chase other birds and small animals. After about a month, Whitehead said, the average bird starts to fend for itself and eventually takes up life in the wild terrain of Asir.

Whitehead estimates that within 10 years the breeding program will have produced Sakers strong enough to resume natural reproduction in the province, which ranges from Red Sea coral reefs across savannas to juniper-covered slopes.

Leaving the Saker’s cage after finishing his courting ritual, Whitehead peered sheepishly toward visiting strangers. “You have to be a bit of an obsessionalist to be involved in this sort of thing,” he said.

Detroit Free Press, 24 August 1984

© Vincent J. Schodolski/Detroit Free Press
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