Peter Whitehead
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"Return of the Hunter"

Whitehead, who bred falcons in England for 10 years, came to the Kingdom’s Asir Province to help in a project to bring the Saker back to Asir. There are now 100 falcons here living in tidy cages of whitewashed cinder-block built in a compound near the peak of the 3,200-metre Mount Sawdah. Working mainly by himself Whitehead has ‘Mated’ with dozens of birds through a process called imprinting.

Peter Whitehead stooped, lifted the dead mouse from the threshold and gently placed it on a small platform in the corner of the rectangular room.

Then, hands thrust deeply into his pockets, he dropped his head even with the ledge where the mouse lay and began to bob up and down as barely audible clucking and warbling sounds issued from his throat. He rolled his shoulders rhythmically and scratched his feet on the earthen floor.

Just inches from Whitehead’s lips, a glassy-eyed male falcon began to move in an almost perfect imitation of the sandy-haired Englishman, puffed out his feathers and proudly strutted across the platform in a near trance.

‘He either thinks he is a human, or that I am a bird,’ Whitehead said.

Ever since he was hatched in this aviary on a isolated ridge near the highest point in Saudi Arabia, this Saker falcon has been isolated from other birds and his only contact with the outside world has come through Whitehead. His keeper provided him with food and protection as he grew. Now that the falcon has reached sexual maturity, the bird and Whitehead are courting.

‘It is all a matter of the male proving he is a good hunter,’ Whitehead said, explaining the elaborate ritual with the mouse the falcon had killed in his cage a few minutes before his keeper entered. By sharing the dead mouse and by expressing gratitude with his mating dance, Whitehead responded to the bird’s advances.

If all goes well, Whitehead will be able to artificially inseminate a female Saker in a cage just down the corridor with semen from the young male and take another step toward rebuilding the falcon population of the south-western part of Saudi Arabia.

Whitehead, who bred falcons in England for 10 years, came to the Kingdom’s Asir Province to help his project to bring the Saker back to Asir, a rugged and lush mountain area along the North Yemen border.

There are now 100 falcons her living in tidy cages of whitewashed cinder-block built in a compound near the peak of the 3,200-metre Mount Sawdah. Working mainly by himself, Whitehead has ‘mated’ with dozens of the birds through a process called imprinting.

Each falcon is kept away from contact with any other birds from the moment of its birth. As they grow, they develop a personality and a manner of behaviour imprinted on them by their trainer. Thus, Whitehead is able to catch both male and female birds at just the right moment in their sexual cycles to ensure successful breeding.

‘In the case of the female, it is a matter of inseminating about two hours before she lays her eggs,’ Whitehead said.

This means carefully monitoring of the birds. Outside each cage, charts hanging on metal clipboards provide an hour-by-hour record of the birds behaviour, eating habits and such biological details as temperature and growth rate.

‘They all have different temperaments,’ Whitehead said as he walked slowly along the narrow hallway that separates the rows of cages on either side of the aviary. ‘Some are very friendly, some are bitchy and some are downright seductive,’ he said, flashing an ambiguous grin at his visitor.

But breeding the falcons is just the start of the process of restoring a vibrant strain of Sakers to an area where they once abounded.

'A captive bird like this does not know how to hunt, or even fly,’ Whitehead explained about the imprinted falcons. Previously, birds bred in captivity have not matured as powerful hunters partly because they never developed the lung capacity for sustained flight at high speeds and the 300-kilometre-per-hour dives that a wild hunting bird uses to swoop down on its prey. This shortcoming has made birds bred in captivity less attractive to falconers who use them for sport hunting.

‘To overcome the problem, Whitehead uses a system called ‘hacking’ to help captive birds develop the instincts and the prowess needed for hunting. The birds selected for hacking are those that appear to have particular physical attributes— broader shoulders and larger beaks and talons.

Once a bird is selected, it is placed out on one of the perches Whitehead has set up atop Mount Sawdah and slowly coaxed into going wild. It is forced to find its own food and encouraged to chase other birds and small animals. After about a month, Whitehead said, the average bird starts to fend for itself and eventually takes up life in the wild terrain of Asir.

Last year one of Whitehead’s imprinted falcons, named Philby after St. John Philby, the Englishman who explored and charted Saudi Arabia’s vast desert ‘Empty Quarter’, adapted to the wild life and now is seen only periodically when it returns to visit its favourite perch on Mount Sawdah.

Whitehead estimates that within 10 years the breeding and hacking programme will have produced Sakers strong enough to resume natural reproduction in the province, which encompasses ecological areas ranging from Red Sea coral reefs to savannahs to juniper covered slopes where the average yearly rainfall exceeds that in many parts of Europe.

Whitehead lives on the compound with his wife and children in a house he built himself just a few yards from the birds. For hours each day, he patiently works with the falcons, coaxing them to reproduce and finally training them to leave their cozy nests.

Leaving the cage of the young male Saker after finishing his courting ritual, Whitehead peered sheepishly toward visiting strangers.

‘You have to be a bit of an obsessionalist to be involved in this sort of thing,’ he said.  (KNT).