Seeking Enlightenment Through an Ancient Sport
by Glenn Whitney
The quintessential moment when every athlete must face the despair of retirement arrived for falconer Peter Whitehead on a scorching August afternoon along Spain’s Costa del Sol.
It was 1991 in the midst of the Persian Gulf War with Iraq. Mr. Whitehead had spent the previous six months on an odyssey to bring 125 trained hunting falcons from a breeding center he established in the mountains of Saudi Arabia to a new home in Europe. After weeks of disputes over import licensing, Spanish authorities confiscated the birds – valued at perhaps $250,000 – and he never saw them again.
To Mr. Whitehead, once an acclaimed avant-garde filmmaker, that afternoon also brought a brutal end to a 20-year passion that had assumed mystical importance in his life and, experts say, provided critical contributions both to the sport and the survival of endangered species,
“No one has worked harder than Peter Whitehead to prevent the extinction of birds of prey” writes Britain’s Prince Philip in the foreword to Mr. Whitehead’s upcoming book on falconry. “I was deeply impressed by his remarkable achievements.”
Despite the accolades, the white-haired Mr. Whitehead now lives in a London flat, recalling with a mix of sorrow and stoical reserve the years he spent in the wilderness as the Western world’s foremost falconer. “Until the very last moment, I hoped to be allowed to bring the birds to England,” he muses. “They were my life. I had raised them from eggs. I lived with them, hunted with them, bred with them. It has taken me nearly five years to recover.”
What the 58-year-old Mr. Whitehead lost was a pioneering falcon-breeding center perched 2,900 meters above sea level near the peak of Jebel Soodah, the highest mountain in Saudi Arabia, near the country’s southern border with Yemen. Under the patronage of Prince Khalid al Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal, he raised about 200 birds at a time, most of which were used by the royal family for hunting, both in Saudi Arabia and further afield in places like Morocco and Pakistan.
“Peter’s unique contribution to falconry in our culture,” says Prince Khalid, “has been to take our best hunting falcons and do the impossible – make them breed in captivity here in Saudi Arabia. We have produced excellent falcons.”
So good, in fact, that Prince Khalid offered Sheik Zaid of Abu Dhabi renowned as the greatest falconer in the world – one of Mr. Whitenead’s hybrid gyr-saker birds as a gift. Replied Sheik Zaid in a letter to Prince Khalid: “Your falcon performed with power, courage and mature hunting skill. The qualities of the falcon represent the qualities of the giver of the gift.”
The offerering of a falcon as a gift is one of the Arab world’s most powerful accolades. Indeed, King Abdul Aziz, the creator of modern-day Saudi Arabia was himself known as al saqr al Jazira – the falcon of the peninsula. And Sheik Zaid’s personal note to Prince Khalid is an extraordinary tribute to Mr. Whitehead’s skill as a falconer and breeder.
The son of a plumber from Liverpool, Mr. Whitehead soared to impressive heights in the world of falconry, the ancient sport of kings. He recklessly climbed mountains from Afghanistan to Alaska in search of birds and their eggs. On the descent he’d hold the eggs against his belly to keep them warm until transferring them to incubators he had built himself. He often tumbled down rock faces, tearing ligaments and shattering ankles.
An otherwise sturdily built man, his sport has left him as battered as a retired American football player. He now hobbles bow-legged, and climbing stairs is painful. “I’ve fallen down more mountains than Sisyphus,” he says. “I spent years of my life living in a Land Rover. Physical comfort didn’t matter. I was in love with the myth of the falcon – the all-seeing eternal wanderer.”
It is believed that falconry was first developed 4,000 years ago in northwestern China. In the 12th century. King Frederick II, emperor of Sicily and Jerusalem, wrote The Art of Falconry, the first known text of the sport, which for many who practice it, steadily becomes an obsession. Legend has it that King Frederick’s dedication to the birds drove him mad and made him unfit to rule. Nonetheless, his book remains the sport’s bible.
After last thriving in the mid-1800s, falconry is enjoying a revival in, Europe, especially in Britain, where there are an estimated 8,000 “hawkers,” and around 20,000 trained birds of prey, in both cases nearly triple the number a decade ago. Prices for hunting birds range from about £150 ($237) for a common buzzard to £500 for well-bred, falcons to some £7,000 for a golden eagle. The various necessary pieces of equipment, including an aviary and a radio tracking system installed on the bird’s tall wings or feet, cost about £1,500. Then there’s the cost of feeding them rats, mice, quail and rabbit – about £300 a year.
In reward for all the effort and expense, a trained falcon will alight from a falconer’s hand and soar to heights of 500 meters or more. With vision eight times more powerful than a human, the bird will spot its prey from as far away as two kilometers. Once in their sights, the bird will “stoop” or dive-bomb at speeds of up to 150 kilometers an hour, pummeling into its unsuspecting target, inflicting death or at lease serious damage on impact. Once on the ground, the falcon and its quarry are retrieved by the falconer. A bit of the kill is given to the falcon before its head it re-covered with a leather hood to keep it calm until it is needed to hunt again.
Mr. Whitehead helped develop many of the procedures now widely used to breed and train birds of prey. Until the 1970s, most birds were taken from the wild while still very young. They were then taught a sort of allegiance by seeing that a human was their most dependable meal-ticket. Gradually the birds were reintroduced to open air to hunt in their instinctive way and return to the leather-gloved left hand of their provider when the job was done.
Mr. Whitehead’s technique is designed to create a kind of thoroughbred falcon. Eggs are removed from selected birds and hatched by incubator. Once born, the falcon chicks accepts the human caretaker as its parent and sole provider – a process known as “imprinting.” For the process to last, however, the human minder must engage in various bird rituals, intricate dances of crouching, jumping, clucking, whistling and arm-flapping.
Once they reach sexual maturity, selected male birds are trained to alight on the back of the minder’s neck and ejaculate into a plastic receptacle. The semen is gathered and used to fertilize selected “imprinted” females. The whole cycle takes two to three years and a willingness to allow the boundaries between the world of humans and birds to blur.
“You enter the mysteries of nature,” Mr. Whitehead explains. “You learn that if you attempt to dominate the falcon, you will fail completely. If you collaborate with it, it will train you. It is a powerful and ultimately humbling experience.”
A father of seven daughters and a son, Mr. Whitehead discovered that hunting with falcons stretched his understanding of sexuality. “The female falcon is the hunter,” he says. “She is bigger and more powerful in every sense. You can only hunt the big prey – desert hare, wild turkeys, bustards – with a female.”
He found a kind of faith through the birds, tying in legends of the ancient Egyptians, for whom the falcon was a divine creature. “It symbolizes wholeness and strength, freedom and power,” Mr. Whitehead says. “The birth of the falcon is represented by the opening of ‘the third eye,’ which itself is consciousness. When the falcon is hooded, it is the symbol of ignorance; when the hood is removed, that is enlightenment.”
It was precisely that search for universal meaning that initially attracted him to the sport of falconry, first while studying physics and crystallography at Cambridge University and some ten years later after a successful career as a documentary fihnmaker. He filmed Allen Ginsberg and other poets at an epic reading in the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 and made Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London in 1967, a film starring Julie Christie, Michael Caine and Mick Jagger. He was in the middle of editing The Fall, an award-winning documentary about the 1968 student uprising in New York’s Columbia University, when a nervous breakdown engulfed him.
After weeks of paralysis, a saker falcon bought from a pet shop in East London for £8 became his therapy and source of strength. His love affair with the birds led him on hunting expeditions around the globe, culminating with his establishing the falcon-breeding center in Saudi Arabia in 1982. The affair was perfect until January 1991 when Iraqi tanks rumbled into Kuwait City. The mood in neighboring Saudi Arabia darkened dramatically as Iraq targeted the kingdom with Scud missiles. All nonessential activities were curtailed. Prince Khalid ordered the falcon center closed, although he encouraged Mr. Whitehead to take his birds to England to create a new center. Flights out of the country were sharply curtailed, so he took the only one available for days – a Saudi Airlines 747 from Jiddah to Casablanca.
In Morocco, he rented a truck to take his falcons across the border to Spain. While he had a license to import the birds into Britain, he lacked the required transit permission for Spain. Weeks of bureaucratic wrangling ensued. At first some local businessmen expressed interest in having Mr. Whitehead build a center on the Spanish coast. Officials in Madrid objected. “That’s how I lost twenty years of my life,” he says, sighing deeply. Most of the birds are thought to have been sold; some died, though, and others ended up in zoos.
Mr, Whitehead hasn’t held a falcon on his fist since that day in Spain, but he remains snared in its myth. He’s spent much of the past four years writing novels, one of which has been optioned for a feature film and an interactive CD-ROM video. Titled The Risen, it follows the adventure of two scientists as they collide with the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, and their offspring, Horus the Falcon.
“I don’t know what most retired sportsmen do – maybe they open restaurants or auto dealerships,” laughs Mr. Whitehead. “For me, I had no other choice but to explore the metaphysical meaning of the sport.”
The Wall Street Journal, 9 October 1995
© Glenn Witney/The Wall Street Journal
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders