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Sheikh of
the Skies

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—

In 2010, an English-language newspaper in Dubai ran a cover story titled Pigeon Impossible: Rats With Wings. “Pigeons have become a nuisance in the city, leaving many residents exasperated,” the report said. “These birds which have been breeding uncontrollably are messing up property with their droppings.” It detailed how pigeon waste was corroding roofs, windows, machinery, car paint, and infecting air conditioning systems. A public health official lamented the “serious” problem, but said that there was no way to count the number of pigeons that were relieving themselves across the city.

The report pointed out that Switzerland had experimented with pigeon contraceptive pills, Britain had hired air gun–wielding snipers to shoot pigeons off buildings, and the United States had used plastic models of birds of prey to scare them off airport runways.

Dubai has been called “the Manhattan of the Arab world.” Over the past three decades, as the United Arab Emirates rapidly developed, it had been preoccupied with breaking world records: It now has the world’s tallest building, largest mall, longest driverless metro, and fastest steel rollercoaster. But an onslaught of pigeon droppings didn’t fit the city’s glittering public image.

The city’s growth was accompanied by a growth in the pest population, including pigeons. A proliferation of pest control firms, now over a hundred in Dubai, was accompanied by a niche market specializing in bird control, many of them employing falcons—natural predators of smaller birds as well as a prized status symbol for the Emirati elite. At the upper end of the market, falcons now travel on private jets with royals from the Persian Gulf on hunting expeditions across the world. In 2010, the UAE led a submission to UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, eventually having falconry, a tradition dating back at least 4,000 years, recognized as an example of intangible cultural heritage. But thanks to the pigeon problem, falcons are being put to work in less glamorous occupations as well.

One morning in January, a flock of pigeons with bobbing heads, their rainbowlike neck feathers sparkling, occupied a railing on a sand-bleached luxury hotel. The hotel sits in a palm-tree–shaped artificial archipelago, the Palm Jumeirah, on the southern coast. The pigeons bumbled near the Gold Suites, rooms that came with gold furnishings, rain showers, and a private butler to pack bags and shine shoes.

A few weeks earlier, a family at a resort nearby had been attacked by crows, one of them digging its claws into a guest’s head, requiring first-aid with painkillers and icepacks.

“These feral birds,” said Hendri Du Toit, an urban falconer, squinting at the Gold Suites. “They won’t be here for long because Marley has come.”

Marley, a saker falcon with gold-flecked wings, was blindfolded and perched on Du Toit’s arm. He was born and bred in Dubai, even though saker falcons, recognized by their brown upperbellies and horizontal pursuit, usually breed around the northern Himalayas. Marley had traveled to this hotel sitting inside the boot of an SUV that barreled past skyscrapers with mirrored windows and marble megaliths. Another saker falcon, Ziggy (who is not Marley’s son), waited in the boot while Marley finished his assignment.

Du Toit, who grew up in South Africa, has been a full-time falconer in Dubai for three years, working for his mentor Peter Bergh, who runs a falconry firm specializing in bird control and entertainment shows.

Marley’s job was to scare, not kill, Du Toit said, attaching a transmitter to the falcon’s back to track his location. He had been trained to circle around, sending the pigeons fleeing in dust, dirt, panic, and then return to his falconer, who would reward him with a big feathery chunk of quail meat.

Du Toit lifted the leather hood that covered Marley’s eyes, and the bird looked around hysterically, his eyes shining like black marbles. On one side he saw a constellation of deck chairs, beach umbrellas, and a water-dipped skyline, and on the other, a row of great buildings, facades, and railings where pigeons, crows, and Indian mynas could be hiding.

He settled on top of a white beach umbrella.

“He’s lazy today because there isn’t a lot of wind,” Du Toit said. “So we’ll let him follow us around for a bit.”

Du Toit walked along the beachfront, a piece of quail tucked into his pocket, and Marley hopped closer, one umbrella to the next.

“Why is he following this silly man?” Du Toit said. “Because he knows I have his lunch.”

Marley finally took off, heading for the Gold Suites, sending the flock of pigeons into delirium. He knew the area well, Du Toit said, because he’d been flying here three times a week for two years as part of the falconry firm’s winter team. The summer team was currently in the molting chambers, changing feathers under artificial light, to get ready for bird control during the summer. (Molt is triggered by longer daylight hours, when the bird perceives food to be in abundance and invests in feather growth. To avoid featherless falcons being scorched in the testing Dubai summer, molting was being artificially stimulated in advance.)

Marley had never killed a pigeon during his pest-control rounds because then “the pigeon family will know it’s safe for the next day or two,” Du Toit said. “We don’t want that.”

The hotel kept a monthly record of the number of complaints from pigeons. A drop in complaining guests meant Marley was doing well, and an increase (which usually came in winter when guests preferred to dine outdoors) meant he needed to expand his route and flying time.

Du Toit kneeled and swirled a rope with a piece of quail tied to one end, and Marley dived for it. He was back on his falconer’s arm, being fed, hooded, and sent to his “happy place,” in Du Toit’s words.

Falconry essentially is the art of managing a falcon’s appetite

On Fridays, Marley’s duties extended to posing for photos with hotel guests who were looking for a new display picture. “He doesn’t mind being around people,” Du Toit said. “But at the end of the day, he’s a hunting companion and not a pet.”

Bergh, the man Du Toit reports to at Royal Shaheen, the falconry firm, started his business eight years ago with two birds. “Today we have 11 guys and 85 birds,” he said. “Because falconry is one of those things that is like a disease. It kind of grabs you from the inside and doesn’t let you go.”

If you break down Bergh’s features into slight eyes, wide smile, sunburnt nose, it does not capture the boyhood wonder with which he recounts every experience.

“Flying falcons in the middle of a concrete jungle is hardcore. It’s a really tough form of falconry,” he said. “The birds come back because I’m their food provider, they don’t come because they like me or think I’m a nice guy. They’re creatures of habit. So they’re thinking, ‘If I come back to Pete, I get a big fat juicy meal but if I catch a pigeon, I get one small juicy meal.’”

Falconry essentially is the art of managing a falcon’s appetite, he said. “You’re standing here on the beach, when the falcon starts disappearing around the back of the hotel, you’ve now lost visual contact, your communication is gone, your mobile signal is gone. If the bird now sees a pigeon across the road, what’s stopping the bird from deciding to chase that pigeon? Nothing really, other than the bird’s loyalty to fly around the building and seek comfort in seeing Pete again. In an urban environment, the margin for error is huge, you’re radically increasing the possibility of something going wrong.”

Bergh, 36, grew up on a sugarcane farm in Pietermaritzburg, a small town outside Durban in South Africa, studying until the 10th grade and taking care of his parent’s horses. At 17, he became a professional player of polocrosse (a sport that marries polo and lacrosse), first representing his country and then playing for a rich coffee farmer’s team in Zimbabwe. Five years later, he came to Dubai to become a guide at a desert resort that kept horses, camels, and falcons.

“It fascinated me that the falcon would go and kill something, you could make a trade and put the whole kill in your pocket, and it would take a little reward to do it again,” he said. “I read all the books there were to read and I spent every spare minute I had at the mews,” a place where falcons are kept.

He then trained under a falconer in Dubai whose main business was bird control, and after two years, he quit to set up his own business, partnering with a falcon breeder who had the patronage of a sheikh from Dubai’s ruling family. The breeder would lend his birds, which cost anything from $1,500 to a million. The price of a falcon is determined by bloodline, breed, size, and gender. The most sought-after is the female gyrfalcon, larger by almost a third compared to the male, and originating from the Arctic.

“Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as an Arabian falcon. They don’t come from here, it’s too hot,” he said. “It was when they would migrate over the Middle East on their way to Africa that the Bedouin learned to catch their falcons and train them. At the end of winter, they would simply untie them and release them back to the wild. A beautiful system, hey?”

Bergh spends his spare mornings innovating for tourism shows, where the majesty of the falcon can be fully displayed. “I’m trying to push a lot of my attention on the tourism stuff. We can keep doing bird control but we know that Dubai wants to go for Expo 2020, we know how many people are coming to the Dubai airport, and that there’s a huge market for this,” he said.

One of his ideas is to get his falcons to chase a radio-controlled plane that he modified to resemble a houbara bustard, the bird traditionally hunted by the Bedouin, and now pushed to near extinction, prompting governments to cancel hunting permits to Arab royalty.

One morning in March, Bergh was lying flat, his chin buried in sand, in the middle of the 87–square-mile Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, talking to a black peregrine falcon. He was gently pulling a rope with a piece of quail attached at one end, the falcon first fluttering in defiance, but then hopping along obediently as his bait moved closer.

Three other falcons—Darky, Thunder, and Batman—had been lined up on a metal stand covered with artificial grass. Bergh wielded his kite-shaped toy plane, parts of it glued to an enlarged image of the flaky pattern found on the houbara bustard’s wings. He attached a piece of quail to the plane with a magnet, and Thunder, a peregrine who had now been unhooded, flapped her wings. The plane took off, Bergh maneuvering its movements with a remote, and Thunder leaped in pursuit. The two disappeared into the sky until Thunder finally snatched her lure midair, and the plane dipped.

“She got clever,” Bergh said, sipping his morning coffee. “We need to maneuver more next time.” So far, Bergh has crashed 38 toy planes.

Three other white SUVs pulled over in the desert plateau with falconers who were training a sheikh’s birds with a live pigeon. Bergh waved at them, and they waved back.

Bergh began experimenting with remote-control planes after he watched a sheikh’s falconers use drones to develop a falcon’s muscles. “The way the Arab have traditionally hunted is like here I’m on a camel with my falcon who is wearing his burqa. When they find a hobuara, the hood comes off, and it’s a straight-line sprint. Catch the houbara, put in my pocket, feed my family, and let’s go again,” he said. “We need to understand how dialed-in the Bedouin were to the land. Now imagine what they could have done with technology.”

Mansi Choksi
Mansi Choksi is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @mansi_choksi.
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