More than a kilometer into the clouds above the Arabian desert, a falcon soars. Just a tiny speck on the ground below, the falconer whips his leather lure through the air. On command, the raptor dives swiftly toward its prey. This dance-like ritual between man and bird is a practice so ancient, no one is really quite sure how far back into human history it goes.
Images of falconry decorate seventh-century Chinese tombs; third-millennium-BCE Syrian pottery sherds; and petroglyphs discovered in present-day Iran, depicting a human on horseback, a dog and a falcon hunting together as long ago as 10,000 years.
“We cannot be sure how old falconry is,” Polish historian Janusz Sieliki writes, “because a significant problem with recorded history is that it can only be recorded where records exist.” By the time these petroglyphs were painted, falconry may have already existed for centuries. Experts can only say for certain that it is one of the oldest activities in human history.
As told in the new feature documentary Wild Allies, 2021, one thing was evident to humans from the time the very first desert nomads who looked skyward: This creature’s hunting skills were superior. For early civilizations, like the desert-dwelling Bedouins of the Arabian peninsula struggling to survive and feed their families in an unforgiving climate, forming a partnership with these powerful birds was the key to survival.
What was it that made the falcon, over all other animals, such a desirable hunting partner?
“To target and then dive-bomb a wood pigeon or a grouse from 5,000 feet at nearly 200 miles an hour, and strike it dead with a single swipe of the foot, requires extraordinary physical abilities,” Joshua Hammer writes in his book The Falcon Thief. “No flesh-eating creature is more efficient, or more merciful, than the peregrine.”
Indeed, with its light, hollow bones and long, stiff feathers for maximum agility in flight, falcons wield their sharp, strong beaks with fatal precision. Their eyes can function simultaneously as a macro and a zoom lens, while their optic nerves work 10 times faster than those of humans, tracking prey at the speed of a Formula 1 race car from as far as a mile away. And, in a controlled dive, or stoop, the peregrine falcon has been clocked at speeds upwards of 350 kilometers per hour, making it the fastest animal on Earth.
In addition to their extraordinary speed, vision and physical ability, these wild birds are also wildly intelligent. This trait was most instrumental of all to ancient man: It meant raptors could be trained. Over generations and across civilizations, humans developed falconry training and husbandry techniques that are still in use today. It may take a month or more of daily work, but at the end of such a process, a trained falcon is accustomed to the noise and activity of the human world, willing to hunt on command, and even able to respond to its own name.
Over time, the ability for humans and falcons to work together has led to other applications far beyond sustenance hunting: During World War II, humans trained raptors to find and kill enemy troops’ messenger pigeons. Today, from office buildings in Los Angeles, to cathedrals in Cologne, to the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, trained raptors deter nuisance birds to protect architecture, keep cities clean, and keep airport runways safe.
Now, falconers worldwide are leveraging this centuries-long collaboration for a new purpose: racing.
Ancient partnership, new breeds
Around the world, different species of raptor are flown in different climates and terrains: Some falconers fly broadwing raptors, including red-tailed hawks, Harris hawks and golden eagles. Others fly shortwings like the Cooper's hawk or goshawk. Yet others fly longwings: the peregrine, the kestrel, and, indigenous to the Middle East, the saker falcon. Driven by conservation, modern falcon breeders are expanding this list.
To protect raptor species in the wild, falconry birds are often bred in captivity — a practice that first became popular in the 1970s as part of a broader conservation movement spearheaded, in part, by the falconry community. With captive breeding came the possibility for hybrid species, in which genetic experts and breeders create new types of raptors that combine, for example, the gyrfalcon’s speed and size with the peregrine’s agility, along with other desirable traits, like resistance to disease or ability to adapt to certain climates.
Hybrids are growing ever more popular. Today, experts estimate they are flown by more than half of all longwing falconers, and in the Middle East, they comprise more than 75 percent of falcons flown. And increasingly, they are bred for their ability to win a race. At falconry events across the Middle East, like the world’s largest falconry festival annually in Saudi Arabia, falconers from across the globe compete in high-tech, high-stakes races, not just for millions in prize money, but to honor an ancient living heritage. To foster the hobby’s sustainability, only captive-bred birds may participate.
Over millennia, the partnership between humans and falcons has taken many forms, with one constant: As falconry continues to evolve and find new, sustainable uses, the falcon, with its formidable strength and intelligence, will inspire future generations just as it did Bedouin hunters in the desert thousands of years ago.
Find out more about the intricacies of training falcons, as well as conservation efforts currently underway to preserve these fierce and majestic creatures, here.