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An Artist Among Falconers

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by Sarah MacLean
Illustration by Sarah MacLean

I saw my first Saker Falcon in a tent in the desert while enjoying cardamom coffee and dates with a group of falconers from Qatar. A young boy was holding the bird on his fist. “This is my father’s falcon,” he told us, beaming proudly, “But soon I will have my own falcon. A saqr.”

This morning chat was one of many glimpses I got into the traditions of falconry at the Third International Festival of Falconry in the United Arab Emirates. I had been invited as a finalist in the festival’s art contest, and I found the birds to be unforgettable. But what really struck me was seeing how falconers from 78 countries had forged so much cultural diversity around the same shared passion.

In the Middle East, falconry has penetrated into everyday culture. I saw falcons perched in the middle of a living room, on the back of a car seat, and on the arm of a falconer seated at lunch. There was a falcon beauty contest in Abu Dhabi and a new falcon passport system in the United Arab Emirates. I was even told that some Middle Eastern airlines allow falcons to perch on a falconer’s armrest during flights.

I was particularly interested in everyday falconry equipment. The same items are used throughout the globe, but the details of their designs are as diverse as the cultures using them. Many falconers wear thick leather gloves to protect their arms from talons, but Arabs employ a stiff cuff called a mangala and weave intricate and beautiful designs into them.

Falconers from Asian steppe countries such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan have hunted on horseback with Golden Eagles for 3,000 years. To carry these 10-pound birds the falconers carve wood or bone props that support their arm at the hip.

To keep birds calm as they rest on a perch or glove, falconers place a hood over the head. Arab, European, and North American hoods largely follow a simple helmet design made from stiff leather, occasionally bearing a crest of beads or leather strips. Hoods from China have a more complex stitching that creates elegant swirls in the leather. Some Japanese hoods are even more artistic, bearing monograms stitched in golden thread and crowns of vibrantly patterned feathers. Such pieces transcended mere utility, becoming an art form unique to falconry.

By the end of my stay, I regarded falconry equipment as inescapably similar and yet fascinatingly different at the same time, just like the falconers themselves.

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About the Author

Sarah MacLean is a junior majoring in Natural Resources at Cornell University. Read her full account, and see her photos, on our blog.