Travel Story Abu Dhabi's very special hospital wing

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Pedicure takes on a whole new meaning at the United Arab Emirates' biggest falcon hospital. 

This is a waiting room like none I ever expected to see. Dozens of falcons sit quietly on perches, their hooded heads occasionally flicking at lightning speed. One young bird sleeps, her head tucked at a 180-degree angle along her back.

Most of the falcons are waiting for their quarterly check-up and treatment. Let’s call it a pedicure. Some are here for transplants — feather transplants that is.

The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a working shrine to the United Arab Emirates’ love of the falcon. Owners have been bringing falcons here since 1999. Now the biggest falcon hospital in the UAE, about 11,200 falcons pass through the doors each year.

The hospital has morphed to customer demand over the years. It expanded its repertoire to all birds when someone brought in their pet sparrow. Dog boarding was added 10 years ago when an owner bought in his saluki — a hunting dog that works in partnership with the falcon.

It’s been welcoming tourists for the past 10 years, as well as running a conservation program, rehabilitating and releasing falcons into the wild. More than 1600 falcons have been released in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Iran and Kazakhstan over the years.

Today we being shown through the hospital by Jordanian Hasan — part-guide, part stand-up comic.

The hospital’s bread-and-butter patients are the UAE’s three most popular falcons. The peregrine which Hasan says has a “starting engine speed only” of 250km/h and can reach diving speeds of 400km/h. There is the bigger saker, the country’s national bird, and then the Siberian gyr, the most expensive which can carry prey up to six times its own body weight.

During the falcon’s moulting season owners collect feathers in case of injury and the bird requires an implant, or “hair extension”, Hasan says. The hospital also has its “spare parts” drawer full of feathers which are attached with a needle or BBQ stick and superglue.

Much like our own pets, the falcons are microchipped and wear identification tags. The big difference, though, is the passport ring around their leg.

Falcons are well-travelled birds in the UAE with owners taking them abroad for hunting and competition.

A falcon passport is much the same as a person — minus the dreaded photo as a falcon’s look changes each year with moulting. The passport contains the owner’s information, and the falcon’s — species, sex, country of origin (this one speaks Spanish and its name is Juno, jokes Hasan), and microchip number.

Falcons only travel via private jet, first or business class, and owners pay for the falcon’s seat. It’s a falcon’s life “watching movies, wi-fi, eating fresh meat, don’t have to use the toilet”, Hasan says.

At the hospital there is space for up to 700 falcons in air-conditioned rooms. There is an ICU and a 24-hour emergency hotline.

The procedure we witness is a pedicure — much like dog’s nails requiring clipping, a falcon’s talons can grow too long and need trimming. Today’s falcon is quickly anaesthetised. The talons are clipped, filed, buffed, its tiny feet moisturised and then massaged for shine. “No colour, no nail polish today,” the operator says.

When an opportunity arises to feed lunch to one of the patients my hand goes up with peregrine speed.

As the falcon perches on my gloved hand (pictured at top), eating the defrosted quail I realise I haven’t really thought this through. The falcon is ripping through bone with an ease that makes me question if I will leave with all my fingers.

Our tour ends with the museum of falcon prey, along with historical and current photos of the Abu Dhabi sheikh and members of the royal family holding their falcons.

From drinking champagne at a decadent Brunch in the Clouds to feeding a patient at the falcon hospital to visiting one of the world’s largest mosques, the Emirati capital has a winning formula for stopover breaks. Duration: 04m 49s Seven West Travel Club

Fact File

Disclaimer

Angie Tomlinson was a guest of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and Etihad Airways.

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