Dispatch from Qatar: Pigeons 36, Falcons 0

Photo by Shaji Thottathil

Joseph Hammond sent in this dispatch from Qatar.

This past weekend Qatari falconers and falconry fans gathered for the start of the 3rd Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival and event which will see some 1300 birds and their owners compete before it concludes on February 2nd. The festival will also include dog racing, target shooting demonstrations and a “Junior Falconer” competition all held under the patronage of Shiekh Joaan bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Prizes include new luxury landcrusiers for the winners.

Journalists which made the hour drive near the Saudi border, where the event was held, had to wait on the roadside for off-road transport to the desert location of the event. A Qatari organizer arrived in his land cruiser. The driver tossed a dead pigeon from the backseat before journalists climbed in. As the press was taxied to the event, the owner’s prized falcon road “shotgun” next to him.

Early Bird Special

Despite this hiccup, the organization ran smoothly. Following the Friday prayer a large buffet of traditional Arab cuisine was served to falcon owners, foreign fans, security guards and the TV crew for the event in a large tent.

But, chicken kebabs proved to be the only birds being eaten on the first day of the festival. The 36 falcons in the first round of the competition failed to catch a single pigeon. Each pigeon (chosen by lottery) was given a small head-start before a falcon was released in pursuit. But, not one of the 36 Falcons released during the event recorded a kill due to strong winds. The first day of the event was designed as a qualification round for rookie falcons.

Some two hundred spectators sitting upon golden King Louis-Farouk chairs, shaded by a canopy watched the action through expensive binoculars. For a while others watched on two large deathtron Jumbotron TV screens. At first the two hundred or so fans were engrossed in the action. Gradually the crowds lost interest as it became clear high winds were preventing the falcons from making kills. Soon the atmosphere was more festive than sporting.

Some in attendance commented that pigeons were a poor replacement for hubara, quail hunted by falconers around the globe. One of the organizers, Mohammed Saad Al-Romeh had returned early from a hunt in the deserts of Algeria to attend to the festival. Though happy with his expedition he conceded that hunting quail in Algeria was less than optimal "The best places to hunt are in Iraq and Iran" he explained.

Millennium Falcons

The festivals participants believe that falconry is an important expression of Qatari culture and a link to thousands of years of tradition. However, Qatari women seem to have a different take on the event. Some believe falconry has become an expensive hobby and an obsession. Entry level birds can be purchases for 10,000 dollars while an elite bird can cost as much as 150,000 dollars.

Reem, a young Qatari woman asked to comment on the day of the event shared her thoughts: “My brother is obsessed with his falcon.” She explains that he often stares at it for hours and takes it to the veterinarian over phantom concerns about its wings. Indeed falcons must be trained everyday to form a partnership between the falcon and falconer. Despite this bond, tracking numbers are attached to the leg of every falcon to help locate strays. As Reem explains falcons sometimes have flight plans of their own: “Sometimes my brother’s bird gets away and when this happens we have received calls from the UAE, ‘Dude we found your bird, come pick it up'. ”

Indeed the UAE has hosted a rival Falcon event of its own which also bills itself as the largest falconry event in the world. However, the Qatari organizers believe bird-for-bird the Qatar International Falcon and Hunting Festival is the king of the wings.