Whitehead’s flight with the falcon
by Jennifer Cabbabe
You have to be very determined to visit the Al Faisal Falcon Breeding Centre – determined and invited. I had both prerequisites and flew across Saudi Arabia, to Abha recently with my husband as my commandeered assistant, to visit Peter Whitehead, falconer extraordinaire, on the mountaintop of Jebel Soodah, the highest point in Saudi Arabia.
In retrospect, it was one of the longest working days I’ve ever put in. Door to door from home in Jeddah and back again, I was on the go for nineteen hours. But it was also one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever undertaken, a real trek into the interior to a mountain eyrie of some hundreds of acres, to observe a unique, fascinating and successful experiment in operation.
Sorely tempted to turn over and go back to sleep, forgetting about the whole plan, I awoke at 4 a.m., downed a cup of tea and headed for Jeddah airport to catch the first Saudia flight to Abha at 6.35 a.m. In the pitch black I felt I was the only poor soul who had to make such a lonely effort and was surprised to see so many fellow early morning travellers in the waiting lounge, although most of them looked as sleepy as I felt.
The Tri-star took off into the cool Jeddah dawn, making a pretty flight, following the coast line over towering escarpments glimmering through the morning mist. Then down into Abha, itself high enough with the airport at 6,800 feet above sea level.
Once under way I felt more awake, and remembered back to my initial contact with Peter Whitehead at a lecture he had delivered about his falconry two weeks prior, to the Natural History Society in Jeddah. On that occasion, two hours had slipped away as hs rambled through the history, the imaginery and ihe practicalities of falcon breeding. His audience had been transfixed as he chatted and showed slides covering his schemes and dreams for the falcons.
Established late in 1982 by Prince Khaled Al Faisal, Governor of the Asir, the Al Faisal Falcon Breeding Centre has grown to capacity with remarkable rapidity, thanks to the generosity and support of Prince Khaled and Peter’s uninterrupted efforts over the past three years. Peter, at the Prince’s invitation, has been involved with the Centre since the idea was conceived. A philanthropist with an enduring love for his mountainous Asir region, Prince Khaled is well know as well for his work with the King Faisal Foundation in Riyadh which contains the largest museum of Islamic manuscripts in the world. The Prince is also a respected poet and painter. But his abiding passion is falcons, hence the Falcon Breeding Centre.
Originally a film-maker, Peter Whitehead has been ‘into falcons’ for some fifteen years. “They are my total passion. The first real thing I did in my life was to pick up a falcon off a perch,” he says. “Like all little boys, I got obsessed with birds but then I dropped it and it was actually much later, as an adult, that my interest in ancient Egyptology led me back to falcons.” Horus the falcon in Egyptian mythology was the symbol of the highest spiritual and intellectual aspirations of man. Peter became one of the very few people in Britain and Europe who breed falcons, using his film-making to support his hobby. His expertise and renown preceded him to Saudi Arabia. “It has been my dream to do what I’m doing now,” he says, “and it’s coming true. I love breeding falcons and here I am breeding them thanks to the invitation and generosity of Prince Khaled Al Faisal. I’ve reached a point of fulfilment.”
Peter is a slightly built, gentle-faced man of medium height, greying and in his late forties. But his mild outlines take on a penetrating intensity when he talks about falconry and falcon breeding. His eyes hood, his shoulders hunch with concentration and he almost begins to resemble one of these magnificent birds. It was this absorption with his craft that had held his audience in Jeddah spellbound and had made me impatient to visit him in the Asir to see the Centre in action.
I step out of the plane in Abha, flinching at the early morning cold. It’s five degrees Celcius with clear sunshine and the crisp bracing air that only exists in the mountains. After a substantial breakfast at one of the comfortable local hotels which cater to summer visitors, I head the mountain by car, climbing continuously for the 23 kilometres out of Abha to the Falcon Breeding Centre. I really begin to feel I am climbing to the top of the world. There’s a guard at the gate who checks my credentials and then provides an escort to take me onwards. The car winds around an internal road, at least another kilometre further. I’m still shivering in the thin winter sunshine, but there’s Peter waiting to great me and show me around.
The Centre consists of a number of widely scattered buildings nestling into the scrubby hillside. It all looks very neat and tidy, with separate buildings containing aviaries, offices, residence, majlis and a huge, transparent-roofed octagonal structure where falcons sit on perches and take the air. I am now at 10,500 feet above sea level and find myself huffing and puffing in the rarified air as we walk to the edge of the cliff face which surrounds the Centre on three sides, the internal road along which I’ve come being the only way in or out.
But I lose my breath completely, gasping at the view from the edge, 5,000 feet down into the valley. As far as the eye can see, and still further, we are surrounded by towering mountains, rugged escarpments and pitted valleys, ridges and outcrops falling away into the distance. The majesty of the scene almost defies description. Hilly villages nestle down there, surrounded by fanning terraces clinging to the mountain side. Fortified houses built of local stone, round towered, sit atop hillocks. Winding mountain roads ribbon their way to the horizon and beyond. It’s a t ruly magificent sight and I reluctantly turn my back on its hypnotic appeal and look back to the centre, spreading away up the hill.
In a direct line from where I sit perched on a rock a safe distance from the drop, I can see three structure, and Peter begins to explain the intricacies and incredible complexity of falcon breeding.
The first is a small square tower, about 18 feet high, very close to the edge of the precipice. It is here that young falcons, hatched in the Centre, are brought, already half grown at the age of three weeks, to learn to fly free. Fed daily from an unseen hatch atop a ladder inside the tower, the birds accustom themselves to being outdoors and will soon venture out onto a surrounding ledge and finger-like pole as they become stronger and more curious and more susceptible to the call of the wild. After a couple of weeks they will fly off.
“The tower ledges are like an artificial cliff,” Peter tells me, “which is where they’d be perching if they were bred in the wild. When they venture further by flying off, they have 5,000 feet of empty air space as practise area beneath them and in the first week of flying they will gradually gist further and further down. But they’re building up muscle, heart and lungs, stamina, speed and flying skill daily, so they can eventually get back up.
They are dependant on the tower for food and will come back there to eat. When it’s time to re-trap them, the falcon will fly into the tower to eat, but by claiming the awaiting quail, closes a hatch on herself.” (Falcons historically are always referred to as “she,” regardless of gender.)
Once the falcons are re-trapped they will be used for hunting in the first year after a training period of six weeks. Then they are kept through the moulting season to hunt a second and even third year after which they are either used for breeding, or set free.
The second building up the slope is an observation block, a smaller tower with a large inset window facing the falcon tower. Peter and Prince Khaled can watch this fledgling process from within, thus not intcrferring with the falcon’s response to tlieir instinctive desire to fly.
“The young birds flying free are a very important part of my story,” says Peter. “Letting them go, that’s the essence. Prince Khaled was absolutely taken up by the idea of breeding falcons and being able to look up into the spring sky, seeing falcons and saying ‘They’re ours!’”
The third building along the cliff face is Peter’s house, some 500 feet away and he points out that with binoculars he can watch the activity going on in the falcon tower from the picture-window in the living-room. This tower is part of the breeding programme and possibly the most delicate. The falcons are at their most exposed at this point in their development and the Centre loses about 10 percent each year. Some have simply disappeared after leaving the tower and Peter can only speculate as to their fate. They are vulnerable to eagles in the first four or five days and to foxes at any time. They may also have starved to death before being able to return to the tower to feed.
The outer walls of Peter’s house are only a few feet from the cliff face and the drop to the valley 5,000 feet below. His residence itself seems to represent a falcons eyrie perch on the edge of a rock face, like a falcon’s nest in the wild. It’s an appropriate setting for this man and his passion. The sense of isolation from the rest of the world is quite palpable. But, says Peter, “I’ve never felt isolation anywhere. As an urban dweller and a film-maker the whole purpose of the falcon thing was to get me out and away. It took me to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco – into the wilderness. I used to spend months at a time hunting falcons. I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a very special affinity between myself and the falcons and I feel very protective towards it. The door is closed to everyone for six months of the year during the breeding. We need solitude and quiet to work with-the birds.” He added, “I don’t communicate much with human beings, but how can I be lonely with two hundred falcons? They want sad accept me, they need me, they communicate with me, 10 of them are imprinted on me and see me as a mate. The whole process of bringing them into breeding condition depends art my constant contact with them. This place is magic.”
The sparkling mountain air is certainly having a magically refreshing effect on me as I sit on the cliff edge talking to this very private man and I find myself making a mental note to check the dictionary meaning of ‘eccentric’ when I get back to Jeddah.
But it’s time to move and we went our way back up the hill. We pass the second of the two towers and Peter explains more about the importance of tower-training for the falcons. The theory is that captive falcons are not good at hunting, and it’s true. That’s why Peter releases them via this complicated, system then re-traps them once they’ve learned to hunt. “Then they’re perfect for hunting, identical, to wild-trapped birds which are anyway caught close to the nest at a very young age,” he says as I puff my way up the hill behind him. “Thanks to our towers we are breeding birds perfect for hunting. Prince Khaled took three captive-bred falcons to Pakistan and they were a great success. All three caught Houbara.”
The Falcon Breeding Centre’s programme is centred around Saker falcons although many other representatives and hybrids are included in breeding. Sakers are the natural choice of hunting bird in the Mid-east, migrating through the region where they are usually trapped and trained in readiness for the hunting season which begins in September. The Saker falcon is the second largest falcon in the world, after the Gyr, hunting in the desert anything of a suitable size, such as small rodents and birds. “Part of the art of falconry,” Peter explains to me, “is to dissuade the falcon from hunting its natural prey and convince it to hunt Houbara.” The Houbara isa tough customer for the Saker falcon and provides good sport. Resembling a small ostrich, it is extremely fast, aggressive and strong. “This is the great excitement of hunting in this area – the falcon doesn’t always win and it’s never easy,” Peter concludes.
We are wandering towards one of the two large buildings which house long rows of bright, airy, open-roofed and generously proportioned aviaries. The scrubby vegetation we are walking through, on closer examination, reveals aromatic herb bushes, wild lavender and forget-me-nots and Peter explains that grazing is no longer allowedi on this mountain top. The land is gradually returning to its natural condition and he hopes this will in turn attract birds and small animals so the Centre will eventually become a nature sanctuary.
We also pass a large circle of smoothly polished basalt and granite stones which have obviously been put into place by an ancient civilisation for who-knows-what ceremonial reason. The surrounding rocks on the ground are mineral rich and volcanic red, highlighting the unusual polished blackness of the ring Stones. I sloped and picked up a lump of fossilised wood and examined rock carvings of animals dated at some 6,000 years old. An archaeologist has examined this setting but has been unable to unlock its secrets. There is a sense of history and timelessness about being here.
It’s feeding time for the falcons and we continue back up the hill. We pass the majlis suite and take a quick look inside. It’s a long and plushly carpeted room with a bordering of comfortable low couches. The walls are covered with paintings, photographs and silks tracing the history of falconry and viewing stands are set into the floor for displaying falcons. This is where Prince Khaled Al Faisal brings guests to see his falcons when he makes his weekly visits to the Breeding Centre.
We walk on past plastic crates stuffed full of live quail – today’s falcon food. David Le Mesurier, Peter’s English assistant of two years and himself a budding falcon expert is nonchalantly wringing necks and dropping carcasses into a bucket.
“Does that bother you?” I ask, shuddering at this abrupt chage of atmosphere. “It did,” he replies, “but I got used to it. It’s necessary, and this is falcon food, after all. The end justifies the means.” I hope he’s right and ask Peter about his food supply. The two hundred falcons at the Centre consume 2,000 quails per week, 500 rats and 1,000 mice. The breeding of this feed has become a separate major undertaking down the valley since it’s too cold at the top. The hapless victims are trucked up to the centre every day.
We enter the aviary area. “No talking, move quietly,” Peter whispers over his shoulder. I see before me a long corridor with, on each side, one-way glass panelled doors into the separated aviaries. There are thirty suites in this section, each housing a mated pair of falcons, mostly Sakeis, but we don’t go into the suites. Peter takes a quail or a suffocated mouse from another bucket and quickly throws it through a hand-sized hatch set into the wall. I watch the reaction within via the one-way glass. The male in this aviary immediately swoops to take the kill, presenting it to the female. She pirouettes and extends her wings, accepting the gift with ceremonial relish. It’s a crucial step that the male should make this presentation since the female must learn to trust her mate as a provider, against the period of two months when she will be unable to leave her place and during the nesting season. Peter watches the ceremony of presentation and acceptance too, and listens to the hicking and hooping cries as male and female go throgh their instinctive performance. For each aviary in each of the two buildings, he records exactly what has happened on a board attached to each door. This painstakingly gathered data will be studied later to estimate progress and breeding suitability.
David appears are beside us, having crept in on silent shoes. “Peter, can you come and see the female in number 17. She’s disturbed…” and Peter turns on his heel and hurries away, his idle gait galvanised into rapid action, his brow knitted in concern. I follow and we go to the other aviary building where a female Saker is having problems getting accustomed to a new room. Peter watches her closely for a few minutes. She is flapping about, emitting distress and challenge calls. Satisfied, Peter steps away from the window. “Keep an eye on her David. She’s done no damage to herself and should settle down soon.”
This second aviary building, containing twenty more suites, is the home of Peter’s imprinted birds and it’s here I see the exceptional skill of the man with his falcons. Each of the ten birds here, some male, some female, believe Peter is their mate and as soon as we enter the building with what I has thought was silent stealth, each falcon begins to call, beckoning for Peter to court, to feed. It has taken Peter laborious months and years to attain this imprinting and he must spend ten to fifteen with each of ‘his’ birds, up to five or six times a day to maintain and develop his symbiotic relationship with each of them.
I watch closely as Peter quietly bends to take a dead mouse from the awaiting bucket and this time enters an aviary where a female Barbary falcon named Barbarella awaits him. She is aged two, and has been bred in captivity, watched and coddled into adulthood by Peter himself. Peter is playing the role of the food-gathering msile and he sets up a hooping and clicking which imitates almost exactly the falcon’s return call. Bobbing and turning his head from side to side in greeting he approaches Barbarella who is excitedly returning the greeting.
“Cleep, cleep, cleep,” calls Peter, and presents the mouse, placing it on a tray built at shoulder height, from the floor. The falcon’s long claws, hooked beak and beady black eyes are disturbingly close, but Peter doesn’t move away from her as she feeds. Still calling, he takes a morsel of food away from her. He is trying to make Barbarella feed him as a practice run for when she must feed her young, but she is too busy tearing the mouse apart. After numerous fruitless attempts Peter says, “Give it to me, you greedy little lady,” and takes the mouse away from the falcon, crossing the aviary to the opposite wall tray. There is a great flurry of wings and loud complaint but this time Barbarella responds positively. Peter, satisfied with this session, comes back out of the aviary, pausing to write his report onto the data sheet before continuing to the next one. This time his behaviour role is reversed, to be surrogate female to a male Gyr falcon. Now though, the quail is thrown in alive, since the mate must hunt and kill to provide for his mate. The falcon quickly dispatches the smaller bird with a single, deadly efficient blow to the back of the neck. There is great excitement on the part of the male who dances and prances and calls as he presents the kill to Peter, not touching touching a morsel himself. Peter accepts the offering and the male follows with a ceremonial dance around the aviary floor, then draws Peter, with much cleep, cleep, cleeping to one of the nesting areas in a comer. Peter’s head is bent down right over that ferocious beak, and I can see clearly illustrated the established trust between the man falcon and the real one.
This process is repeated, aviary after aviary, with a number of variations and differing degrees of success, depending on the stage of development of the bonding between Peter and any particular falcon.
We move out into the sunlight, but with the approaching mid-afternoon, a penetrating cold wind has sprung up from the valley, reminding me that the nights here are freezing. It’s already time to start running up against the evening chill.
I follow Peter across open ground to the huge octagonal exerdse area. Inside, ten or twelve falcons are perched, each on her own block.
“These are birds we’re working with,” Peter explains. “Some will go into aviaries, some will be set free. There’s a Perregrine here who attacks everything. I can’t let it go because it would die, so it stays. One day maybe someone will come and take it away for hunting.” I move amongst the falcons, skirting widely around the Perregrine with the bad reputation. The grace and dignity of these falcons, their proud carriage and superb plumage is beautifully displayed through the dappled afternoon sunlight winking through the roof. The mountain wind can’t penetrate here, and all is warm and serene. Peter takes ‘J.K.’, a five-year old male Gyr falcon outside to be photographed. This bird was bred by Peter from an egg and is completely imprinted on him. He stands majestically on Peter’s arm, his symetrically marked plumage outlined against the sky, dipping and bowing in appreciation of Peter. He is then disturbed by some Kites flying overhead, and twists his head around for a better look, calling in alarm. Normally, in the wild, he would chase them off without delay. I am hushed by his beauty.
It’s getting late and the icy wind cuts through me as we head back to Peter’s studio-office for a very welcome sit down and a cup of tea.
There is no other falcon breeding centre anywhere else in the world which operates anywhere near the scale that Prince Khaled Al Faisal has outside Abha, specifically breeding birds for falconry. “The Perregrine Foundation in the USA in association with Cornell University have bred more than a thousand falcons for release into the wild over the past ten years. There is also a small outfit in Canada and another in Bahrain with about thirty Sakers and Australian Perregrines, but nothing on this scale,” Peter tells me. With an age span of twenty-five to thirty years and approximately ten good years of breeding between the ages of three and thirteen, the Al Faisal Falcon Breeding Centre can expect a productive future from its falcons.
I relax in Peter’s office, wanned by the tea and beginning to feel it’s been rather a long day. Peter is telling me that he doesn’t go hunting any more because he likes the Houbara too much. “I spent years looking at the world through my camera lens,” he says, “and now I see it through the eyes of a falcon. When you’re perched on a cliff and there’s endless sky above you and the falcons are flying then you realise that’s real. I have no need to hunt. I realise that through my camera lens I saw nothing, but now with this falcon thing I have learnt to see again, to think, to touch. Now it’s a sort of family thing with my falcons.”
As he talks, my eye is caught by a small slip of paperm mclipped onto a notice-board and almost hidden by cuttings and clippings of falcons and their stories, interspered with photographs of Peter’s wife and children, soon to re-join him on the mountain-top after spending time in England. Written on it is a succint little piece of poetry which probably tells me as much about Peter and his falcons as his hours of chatting and touring has done. It says:
“Caught between the two atavistic impulses of mankind…
A desire to fly and…
A terror of falling…”
But it’s time to leave. It’s five in the afternoon and freezing outside. We say our goodbyes, I offer my gratitude, and head for the car. In the gathering dusk the light is fading and the valley, so crystal clear in the morning, is a yawning pit of darkening haze. For all the hours I’ve spent here, I feel I’ve only tipped the iceberg of Peter Whitehead’s life with his falcons. Now it’s back down the mountain to Abha and on out to the airport and a weary flight back to Jeddah.
Curiosity finally gets the better of me and before sleeping I check the dictionary for the meaning of ‘eccentric.’ ‘Of the circle,’ it says, ‘not concentric, not placed correctly, not having its axis placed centrally, odd or whimsical.’
“No way,” I tell myself. There’s nothing off-centre or whimsical about this man. On the contrary, his, single-mindedness and scholarly mien are exactly on target. He is truly at one with his falcons and the art of falconry.
Saudi Gazette, 5 February 1986
© Jennifer Cabbabe/Saudi Gazette
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders