The Sticking Place

Falcon find breeding place at Asir

by Pat A Little

Prince Khaled Al Faisal, the governor of Asir, and Peter Whitehead, share one consuming interest, a love of falcons. When they met three years ago, their rapport was instant and they wasted no time in turning their mutual dream of breeding falcons into reality.

Near the peak of Jebel Soodah, at 3,190 meters, the highest mountain in Saudi Arabia, stands the Al Faisal Falcon Breeding Center, the first part of which was built and occupied in a staggeringly short period of six weeks. Here in this remote and beautiful spot, Peter Whitehead, an Englishman, retreats for six months of every year during the falcons’ breeding season, January-July, and dedicates himself to the breeding and training of some 200 birds comprising several different species of falcon.

The falcon is a powerful element in Egyptian mythology, but history indicates that the Aryans may have been the first people to capture and use falcons for sport and hunting, and from the northern Steppes of Russia they swept through India, the Middle East and Europe. Falconry is known as the “sport of kings,” but for thousands of years it has held a fascination and abiding interest for many lesser mortals. Indeed, up until 15 years ago, falcons were kept and used extensively by the Bedouin of Arabia, when the birds were more plentiful and were returned to the wild at the end of the breeding season. In recent years, an unfortunate chain reaction started when someone paid an unreasonably high amount for a bird to give as a gift, and since then prices have skyrocketed, with a high-quality falcon fetching as much as $70,000. Inevitably, this has taken the sport out of reach of all but the very rich and has created a shortage of falcons, for at those prices, no falconer would dream of releasing his birds. Some Bedouin tribesmen still hunt in the old way, capturing and training a falcon for the short hunting season, January-February, and releasing the bird at the end of the season.

Birds captured in passage are “wild-tuned,” and after training retain their naturally tenacious hunting skills. One of the major problems of breeding birds in captivity is that they lack the “wild tuning” much favored by the falconers. High up on Jebel Soodah in the Al Faisal Falcon Center, Peter Whitehead is striving to breed “wild-tuned” birds to satisfy the demands of the falconers and to release some high-quality males into the wild to breed with the wild females, thereby increasing and improving the stock. His methods are quite remarkable.

The 200 birds at the center include the Barbary and Sooty falcons, the Saker, Peregrine, Laner and Gyr falcons. The first six are migratory, part-time residents in Saudi Arabia, but the Gyr, the largest falcon in the world, lives near the Arctic Circle and in the past was greatly coveted by Saudi Arabian falconers for its superior strength. As it is now on the endangered species list, the center is attempting to breed the Gyr to increase its numbers. Female falcons are twice the size of the males and are preferred for hunting as they are naturally stronger arid more aggressive than their mates.

Peter Whitehead has developed a new technique for the selective breeding of Saker falcons, which is based on the pioneering work of the American breeder Les Boyd. He removes the eggs of selected high-quality females and hatches the eggs himself. Thus the phenomenon of “imprinting” takes place as the falcon chick accepts Peter as his/her parent and sole provider. Imprinting continues until the birds are mature and ready for mating. Female falcons lay their eggs during the night, normally one every hour. For Peter this involves a nightlong vigil of hourly visits to the nesting area, for as soon as the bird lays her first egg, she is artificially inseminated to fertilize the subsequent eggs. It is quite astonishing that a human being can induce such confidence in a bird of prey.

The breeding center has two towers built at either end of the site which overlooks the breathtaking vista of the escarpment at Al Soodah. Young falcon chicks which have been hatched naturally and have had no exposure to humans — the food is introduced through a small hatch — are removed from the nest and transferred to the eyrie towers where they are fed surreptitiously at night. During the day the young falcons learn to soar and sweep freely in the thermals, gathering strength and skill for their ultimate need to spot and kill prey. By the time they are ready to hunt for themselves and are caught and trained for falconry, they have become “wild-tuned,” the one quality the falconer most desires.

Growing falcons have a voracious appetite and they gain between 300 and 400 grams a day. The birds at the center consume thousands of rats, mice and quail every week, so the hapless rodents and quails have to be bred at the center too to meet the demand. Prince Khaled and Peter Whitehead are aiming at breeding 50 falcons every year. The involvement is intensive and exhausting during the six-month breeding season and only a person of total dedication to falcons could cope with the demands of the work.

Hunting for the Houbara bustard is considered by Arabian falconers to be the most exciting sport of all. At one time, bustards were plentiful on the Arabian Peninsula, but today, the bird is in danger of becoming extinct through overhunting, not only by falconers, but also by people with guns who shoot as many bustards as possible. At the moment there is no legislation to prevent people shooting the bustard. A falcon can spot a crouching Houbara from 10 kilometers away. When the hood is removed from the falcon and it spots the Houbara, it starts bobbing excitedly on the wrist of its handler, when released the falcon flies in a low, direct line and alights beside its prey, “marking” it. No falconer who has any pride in himself will allow his bird to make such an easy kill, the Houbara is flushed out and given an opportunity to escape, which they do frequently as they are three times the size of the falcons, and have powerful wings and long legs which are capable of breaking the falcon’s wings during a confrontation.

It is the hope of the Al Faisal center that if more falcons are available at reasonable prices, and the sport gains in popularity, the demand for a plentiful supply of wild Houbara in Saudi Arabia will increase and hopefully will lead to the introduction of conservation measures for the Houbara. At the moment falconers have to travel to Pakistan to ensure good Houbara hunting.

Another success story from the center is the tale of the imperial eagle which arrived with practically, bald wings; somebody had clipped all the flight feathers off to “stop it from flying away.” While it is common practice to replace lost and damaged feathers by the technique of “imping,” i.e., inserting a feather into the empty feather shaft which supports the new growing feather until it is strong enough, the task of “imping” two whole wings of an imperial eagle might have been considered somewhat daunting. Nevertheless, Peter painstakingly “imped” two whole wings and had the satisfaction of seeing the new feathers growing in. In a short time, the magnificent eagle will be released into the cool air above Jebel Soodah to live out its life as nature intended.

In the long term, the Al Faisal Falcon Breeding Center may develop into a major supply center for restocking endangered species of falcons, not only in Arabia, but on a worldwide scale. For instance, in China, one main natural habitat for falcons has been turned into a nuclear-testing zone which obviously will decimate the birds.

While the center appreciates the interest and support of the general public, visitors are firmly discouraged during the breeding season. The handful of people who work at the center live almost reclusively during the season leaving the mountain top only to bring in supplies from Abha.

Prince Khaled and Peter Whitehead are men of vision: the former is realizing a personal dream in creating his Falcon Center for the benefit of future generations and the latter is following his destiny.

Arab News, 20 January 1986

© Pat A Little/Arab News
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