Qatar Veterinary Hospital treats 150 pampered falcons a day, keeping the ancient bond between man and bird alive

At first glance, the Souq Waqif Clinic in the historic center of Doha, the capital of Qatar, could be any other state-of-the-art hospital.

Nurses in blue coats move quickly through the bright rooms, making rounds.

Radiology and operating rooms buzz with the beeps and flashes of monitors.

Specialists squint at x-rays and masked doctors make incisions with all the cutting-edge tools of modern surgery at their fingertips.

There is only one difference: the rooms are filled with falcons.

In the small and wealthy emirate of Qatar, desert birds are among the country’s most cherished inhabitants.

An obsession since the Paleolithic

Long revered throughout the Arabian Peninsula for their ferocity and hunting prowess, falcons today serve as sheikh status symbols reminiscent of a Bedouin past.

The bond between falconers and their falcons has been an inspiration since the Paleolithic period, when drawings of the creatures first appeared on cave walls.

Although less fashionable today than it once was, the art of falconry is still passed down from generation to generation in Qatar and other oil emirates in the Persian Gulf.

A peregrine falcon waits to be seen at Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital. (PA: Lujain Jo)

With growing demand in recent years, clubs that teach the sport have sprung up across the region.

Falcons participate in an increasing number of races and beauty contests.

The finest falcons fetch at least a few thousand dollars, and Qataris spare no expense in maintaining good health.

“The creation of the hospital was to support the hobby and the legacy of falcon farming…it’s a hobby that spans generations,” said the director of the Souq Waqif Hospital, Ikdam Al Karkhi.

“Keeping them alive and healthy is an essential duty.”

Public hospitals such as Souq Waqif provide specialist care for sick and injured falcons, around 30,000 a year.

Feather replacements and mani-pedis

The marbled reception area is teeming with owners and handlers who bring their birds in for checkups, medical tests, feather replacements, orthopedic surgeries — and even something akin to mani-pedis.

Falcon nail filing is very serious business as birds transplanted from the wild desert into opulent homes in skyscraper-studded Doha or bred in captivity cannot easily find sharp surfaces on which to carve their talons.

And a falcon hunt may be a long revered tradition, but it’s also gruesome work.

Cornered prey sometimes fights back, clawing at an attacking hawk and hobbling its wings.

A man dressed in white with black hair and a mustache stands outside the souk waqif falcon hospital with a bird on his wrist
Khodr Allah, a Pakistani resident of Qatar, takes his gyrfalcon for treatment at Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital.(AP: Lujain Jo)

Each of a hawk’s feathers is vital to its flight, requiring careful feather replacement after a fight.

Doctors dig into a bank of lost feathers to find one that perfectly matches the breed of the injured bird – plumage of the same pattern, length and color.

“If these damaged feathers remain, it can cause the bird to lose or reduce its fitness,” Dr Al Karkhi said.

“They need to be cared for.”

Surgeons at the hospital are also treating other victims of the hunt.

Hawks’ beaks and talons take damage from all that dipping, diving, and swallowing.

“The love of the bird is extraordinary”

In the clinic’s waiting room, the falcons perch regally on the gloved wrists of their owners. Qatari men in their long white robes treat the birds with love, stroking their feathers and spraying water on their beaks.

“If a person neglects his bird, it’s a huge problem,” said Hamad Al Mehshadi, a director of the falcon festival taking his raptor for regular medical checks.

“When you hold your bird, it’s something else. The love of the bird is extraordinary.”

Oil wealth and global business may have transformed Doha into a futuristic capital with a glittering array of skyscrapers and megaprojects, including giant stadiums that will soon host millions of football fans for the upcoming FIFA World Cup. football 2022.

But Souq Waqif still sees a steady stream of 150 falcons a day – a sign that the echoes of Qatar’s ancient past are not lost.

“Even the look that a falcon and its owner share is different from any other look,” Dr Al Karkhi said.

Falconers “feel the loyalty of this bird – a fierce warrior in nature and yet a pet in my hand”.


Benjamin M. Yerger