For The Saker Understanding

Misunderstood in Britain but prized in the Middle East

Posting this article is an exercise in utilizing ChatGPT to extract content from “The Falconers Magazine,” Issue 1, 1989. I acknowledge that reading articles directly from JPG images can be challenging, so I’m exploring this method as I progress with publishing digital versions of the magazines. This process is time-consuming, but I am committed to enhancing accessibility for our forum members.

The Saker Falcon is a truly magnificent hunting bird, but in Europe, particularly Great Britain, it is misunderstood and not rated very highly. Probably because for a great many years western falconers have suffered from what Jemima Parry-Jones calls in her book “Terminal Peregrinitus”. If it is not a Peregrine Falcon then it cannot be a good Falcon. But Sakers are very good Falcons, powerful on the wing, good footers with a long reach and a very aggressive nature towards their quarry. The lack of success with Sakers in this country is due mainly to the low level of knowledge amongst falconers of how to enter them properly.

The Saker comes in many varied shapes, sizes and colors. In the west we recognize four subspecies of Saker: Cherrug of central Europe, Cyanopus of eastern Europe and Russia, Milvipes of Asia (east of Afghanistan) and Altaicus of the Altai mountains of central Asia. Unlike us the Arab falconer does not recognize birds by subspecies or region, but by size and color. To him there are approximately eleven types of Saker, the main six being as follows: The Ashgar or blonde, the Ahmar or red, the Akhdhar or green, the Adham or dark, the Sinjari or black and the Tibri or golden. The most highly prized are the Ashgar and the Sinjari.

The Arab falconers know more about the Saker than any western falconer can ever hope to know. They can look at the traders’ catch in the marketplace, of probably a hundred plus falcons, and unerringly pick out the best hunting birds. Although any bird of unusual coloration will sell for a good price. This has led to various trickery in the past, including bleaching the feathers of a Saker with peroxide, to make it appear a truly unusual bird. Believe it or not, the bird did sell for a very high price and the ruse was not discovered until the bird had moulted out the following year.

The traders themselves also have an unparalleled knowledge of the Saker. A trader in Arabia is very different to a trader in Europe, he will have spent his entire working life around falcons, but until he reached the age of twenty-five to thirty he would never have been allowed to handle one in earnest. He would only have been allowed to do the menial tasks such as preparing the food and cleaning up any mess. After many years he will be allowed to handle a bird but not become involved in the negotiations for buying or selling. This only comes when he has reached the age of fifty or so, but by the time he does actually come to deal in birds he will have had around thirty years experience under his belt, even then he must exercise caution.

Last year a dealer in Saudi Arabia had a very good Ashgar Saker. It was the beginning of the season, when most of the birds arriving had been trapped in Turkey, not normally a source of good birds, so the Ashgar was a good bird to have. Accordingly, a high price (50,000 dollars) was asked. A lot of interest was shown in the bird, but the highest price offered was 45,000 dollars, which was refused and the dealer stuck his ground for two weeks to try and get the higher price. After this time he decided to settle for the 45,000 dollars offered, but by now other Ashgars had arrived from Syria and Pakistan, so the highest price he could obtain was 25,000 dollars.

To be a successful trader in Arabia, you must have a thorough knowledge of your customers and your competitors as well as your own stock. Some western breeders have made the mistake of thinking Arab falconers will pay any price for birds and therefore there are rich pickings to be had. Most have had a very rude awakening, one or two unscrupulous dealers have made a lot of money by trickery and deception, but only the once. Arabs do not buy Eyass Falcons, they will never ever buy an imprint and any bird that will not take large quarry is useless to them.

One of the few successful western breeders, who sells captive bred birds to the Arabs, has developed a system that seems to work. He only sells captive bred, parent reared Gyrs, but they are flown and entered in Europe, then shipped out to Damascus for the start of the trading season in September. Because his birds are strong and good hunters, he is assured a warm welcome by the traders and his reputation and stature grow year by year, as does the price of his birds. Generally speaking Arab falconers do not buy captive bred birds, there are sufficient numbers of wild caught Sakers and Peregrines in the marketplace each year. Western falconers and conservationists think that Arabs are a terrible drain on the wild raptor population. This just isn’t true, it must be remembered that all but the very best three or four birds are released at the end of the season, in good condition and at a time when they would be migrating back to Asia anyway.

The captive bred falcons flown by the Arabs, such as Gyrs, make up a tiny percentage of the birds used. These are not normally released at the end of the season but moulted out for the following year. Should any of these captive bred birds be lost during the hunting season then the experience gained in hunting should help them to survive in the wild.

The training methods in Arabia are very different to those used in Europe. The first thing that would strike the western falconer is the constant noise that the birds are subjected to from the moment they are taken up. Arab falconers teach each bird to know its name by shouting it constantly. They also stroke their birds the whole time, with sweeping movements of the hand, from the top of the head to the tip of the tail. The birds are taught to feed through the hood and are kept with the falconer all the time. Once they will feed through the hood the training begins in earnest and when unhooded they are given nothing to eat until they will feed freely on the fist. If this takes two or three days, then so be it, however, this does not apply to the Peregrine as they dehydrate too quickly. They must have some food in order to obtain the moisture they need.

Once the falcon will feed freely on the fist then progress is very quick indeed. In as little as fifteen days the bird will be entered at wild quarry and if the falcon shows any reluctance to fly such large prey as Houbara she will be given one or two bagged ones, that have been taken alive by other hunting falcons (bagged quarry is illegal in Great Britain). Once she flies these, she will be tried at wild quarry again but if not, she will be given a good meal on the fist and then released.

The hunting season begins in November and goes through to the end of March, when the summer heat begins. Due to scarcity of quarry, as a direct result of overhunting, most of the better falconers leave the Gulf to do their hunting elsewhere. At first, it was Pakistan and Egypt that had visiting falconers by the score but quarry is getting scarce there now as well. Hunting expeditions now range out to Somalia, Sudan, Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mauritania. Now that the Gulf War has ended, then at least Syria and Iraq are back on the hunter’s list.

The Arab falconer is only interested in three quarry species: Macqueen’s Bustard or Houbara, Stone Curlew or Kairowan, and the Hare or Arnab. Apart from the Saker, only two other falcons are employed: The Shunqar or Gyr and the Peregrine or Shahin, very occasionally an exceptional male Peregrine will be kept and trained. These are used only for Stone Curlew. In fact, the Arabic name for the Tiercel is Tiba, which means Stone Curlew poison.

It is the Saker which is the mainstay of Arab falconry and Houbara the main quarry. When out hunting an old Saker will be used as a spotter and when she becomes agitated and bobs her head the falconer will place his hand directly in front of her face. If she tries to look over his hand then the falconer knows the quarry is a long way off, but if she tries to look under it then the Houbara is near enough for a slip. The look-out is then hooded up and the falcon chosen for the chase unhooded. Arab falconers do not cast their birds off but let them take wing at will. This is very important with Sakers, as anyone who has flown them at Rooks in this country will know. They need to be able to have a look round and take stock of the situation, otherwise they will rake off and not take on the slip required.

Sakers soon become wedded to the Houbara and chase them with relish and another big advantage with the Saker, is that it loves a rough and tumble on the ground. Whereas a Peregrine would stand off such a large bird, the Saker is in for the kill without hesitation. Arab falconers admit that the Peregrine is slightly quicker in a straight line, but the Saker has much greater stamina and perseverance.

For those that have never seen Arab falconry it really is very disappointing after watching western style flights. It resembles longwing Goshawking.

Most of the quarry is taken on the ground and very few Houbara try to escape by ringing up, which they are capable of doing. For the European falconer, the Saker has several possibilities. The most common flight for both Saker and Sakret is the Rook, a quarry at which Sakers excel. Of all the falcons, except perhaps the Gyr, Sakers require the longest slips and a lot of ground to build up their speed and they also have to be taken lower than the average Peregrine to enter them. Once they have two or three kills under their belt, they soon become wedded. Sakrets also make ideal Partridge hawks, they are not too big or clumsy but must be served quickly. They can be taught to wait on easily, but will not sustain it, as would a Peregrine. Female Sakers do not make Grouse hawks, they have too much sail and cannot cope with the strong winds normally found on a moor.

One of the most endearing qualities of the Saker is its affectionate streak, one really old Haggard that I used to have would sleep at the end of my bed, but kill Rooks in fine style when called upon to do so. But back in the house she would return to being the baby of the family.