What do you feed a falcon - the fastest animal on earth, whose hooked beak can crush bones?
You could, possibly, be modern and try wholegrains ... but as this bird of prey, this raptor, is happiest with a full stomach, best to go with a small animal, preferably a live bird.
I am in the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital holding, in a heavily wadded leather glove, a lately defrosted quail. I am advised to hold my arm up steady and grip the small legs firmly. A beautiful saker falcon is placed on the glove and instantly digs in, ripping into the meal, crunching through bone, occasionally looking around, doing a safety check.
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I become nervous. The falcon is beautiful and focused but what happens when he/she (I forget to ask) gets to lunch's legs? I am more than happy when advised to loosen my grip.
This all happens in the waiting room of the hospital where, on astro-turfed benches, rows of falcons calmly sit awaiting their procedures. The calmness is because each is wearing a hood, called a burqa, over its eyes. A very strange sight for visitors on the popular falcon hospital tours but for hospital staff and the birds' owners, it's routine.
Our guide, Obaid, a keen falconer — he has five — tells us other birds are falcons' main diet but they too are prey. "When they see the eagle circling above, they come straight back to me."
In the oil-rich emirates, the falcon is no longer needed to find food for the family but the training and upkeep of the birds is extremely popular. The most widely used are the peregrine, the bigger sakers — the emblem of the UAE — and the Siberian gyr, the most expensive, which can carry prey up to six times its own weight.
Falconry has been part of desert life on the Arabian Peninsula for centuries and the birds are known as the hunting dogs of the skies. The actual dogs that were an integral part of Bedouin hunting culture, the sleek salukis, worked in tandem with the falcons and can be found adjacent to the hospital, in a breeding and training centre.
The Abu Dhabi centre is the world's largest falcon hospital, treating more than 11,000 birds every year and it also runs bird boarding and its own breeding programme.
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The centre is also in charge of rehabilitating birds in the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Falcon Release Programme that has seen more than 1600 falcons from the UAE released in unpopulated regions of countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Kazakhstan.
As our tour continues, we see a brown-chested falcon under anaesthetic, via a gas cone, to have his talons trimmed. (Hands up who wants to give a pedicure to an alert raptor.) We are able to stroke the chest, rounded, sleek and gently rising and falling. The talons are clipped then filed and buffed with a dremel tool. Within minutes of the procedure, he re-awakens, flapping furiously and about to go under the burqa again.
The hospital can cope with all avian medical emergencies and has "wards" for more than 250 in-patients but the birds perched around us are here on routine visits. Sometimes it's feather repairs. If a feather is missing or broken the bird cannot fly properly so the hospital's spare parts of moulted feathers are attached by light wire or, for half-feathers a piece of light wood, like part of a barbecue skewer is inserted into the shaft of both pieces and held together with superglue. The repairs will keep the birds on course until the next moulting season.
Although peregrines have a dive speed of nearly 400km/h, all the Arabian falcons can easily fly much faster. Commercial airlines in the Middle East have their own rules for transporting falcons and they are not relegated to the hold. Etihad Airways allows one falcon per seat in Economy, two in First or Business. They all have their own passports — no photos required as their appearance changes with the seasons.
Etihad flies direct from Sydney to Abu Dhabi with codeshare connections to New Zealand. The airline offers two nights free accommodation in Abu Dhabi for passengers flying onwards to other destinations. etihad.com.
The Falcon Hospital is a 10-minute drive from Abu Dhabi airport.
It's open Sunday to Thursday for tours at 10am and 2pm and Saturday (from October 1 to May 3 only) at 10am. A two-hour tour costs $60 per person, less for children.
All tours must be booked online in advance. falconhospital.com