UAE falcons in pigeon control face headwind

Wed Nov 2, 2011 10:05am EDT
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By Martina Fuchs

SIR BANI YAS ISLAND, United Arab Emirates (Reuters) - Falcons, long used for hunting in the Middle East and a prized status symbol, are now being adapted for a more mundane problem: pest control.

The appearance of gleaming steel and glass high-rise buildings in the Gulf emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai where only desert existed a few decades ago, coupled with a long tradition of breeding birds of prey, has made falcon-based pest control a thriving business, as building owners try to prevent pigeons from nesting and relieving themselves on their flawless facades.

"Pigeons are flying rats, they will come in and just nest," said Richard Ellis, a falconer at Royal Shaheen Events.

"It is an ecological way to use falcons to control the populations of pigeons," he said as he placed hoods over the birds' heads as part of preparations to transport them to another pigeon-infested zone for a fresh hunt.

Royal Shaheen, a falconry enterprise based in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, makes up to half of its revenue from pest control on Sir Bani Yas island, a tourist destination where imported wild animals roam in a safari park.

Falcons, some able to dive at speeds over 320 km/h (200 mph), don't kill the pigeons but are used to scare them away from public places.

But still, not everyone approves of using a bird that is so widely revered in the Gulf for such workmanlike purposes.

Centuries ago in the region, Bedouin tribesmen used falcons -- "saqr" in Arabic -- to hunt for meat in the winter, when the only food available were dates, camel milk and bread. It is the national symbol of the seven United Arab Emirates, featured on road signs and the national currency.   Continued...

<p>Speedy, a Gyr-Merlin falcon, is seen in a Royal Shaheen enclosure on an island off the coast of Abu Dhabi May 8, 2011. REUTERS/Jumana El-Heloueh</p>