Why do falcons capture the imagination of scientists and artists alike?

By Deepthi Unnikrishnan, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

Justin Wilcox received a call from a distraught acquaintance whose falcons had just been disqualified from a local racing competition. The judge determined his birds were hybrids based on their appearance, and competition rules stated that only purebreds could compete. The man had spent hundreds of thousands of dirhams breeding and training his birds, and was aware of Wilcox’s ongoing research at NYU Abu Dhabi on falcon genomics. Did he have the science to prove the judge wrong?

“No one really has any way to prove these (birds) aren't hybrids at this point,” Wilcox told him. Not yet, but it’s something he’s working on.

A symbol of prestige, beauty, power, and strength, falcons have had a complicated relationship with humankind that has spanned cultures and continents for centuries. In the UAE, where they used to be captured in the wild and released during migratory season, millions of dirhams are now spent on captive breeding, raising, and training falcons for hunting and competitions. In 2018, the President Cup Falcon Competition in Abu Dhabi handed out prizes valued up to AED 25 million for the best hunting and racing falcons. 

Monetary value aside, falcons are important and intriguing for scientific reasons: their DNA profile. At the Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, Wilcox is working to sequence the complete genomes of several species of falcons in a bid to shed some light on the unique evolution of one of the most diverse groups of birds in the world. The roughly 40 different species found today evolved fairly recently and at a much quicker pace than most of their winged kind. Identifying purebreds and hybrid falcons — perhaps even wild and captive birds — would be possible and it would also be monumental for breeding and conservation.

Falcons are strong candidates for studying how new species arise.

Justin Wilcox, postdoctoral associate

Wilcox is particularly interested in using falcon genomics as a biological template to study how closely related species differ at the molecular level. Genome sequencing, he says, could provide major insights into how a small number of species can diversify into many and “falcons are strong candidates for studying how new species arise.”

“There’s just (this) kind of really neat thing where you have this very historical, cultural aspect that's intertwined with this kind of weird, different evolutionary story that's pretty unique within birds.”

Wilcox also hopes to explore how human-falcon interactions over thousands of years, and selective breeding practices, may have altered the bird’s genetic makeup and impacted their evolution.

Women in Falconry

How falcons and falconry are viewed is of particular interest to Anne-Lise Tropato, a falconry research fellow at NYUAD, who is developing a global database of artistic falcon-related images. The visual narrative in falconry so far, says Tropato, has centered significantly around men and their traditional patriarchal roles in society. Only recently has the representation of women in falconry emerged as a topic for scholarly research and debate prompting her to take a closer look at the pictures in her collection.

Falconry is not just a hunting story, says Tropato, and sometimes women “are used as an allegory — the depiction of something abstract like love; the depiction of a sentiment, the depiction of a state, the depiction of a quality much more than the depiction of a real huntress.” 

This can be seen in the countless variations of images where a falconer is trying to court a lady. On the other hand, important women from the past have used falcons intentionally as an indication of their hunting skills as well as a symbol of political might; much like their male counterparts.

For Tropato, the role women play in falconry is a subject of ongoing scrutiny but “it holds more than academic interest. It questions what is conceived as proper feminine behavior.”  

However, imagery alone fails to fully illustrate women’s role in falconry. It’s among one of many aspects of this union between humans and falcons that keeps Tropato intrigued. In their own way, both Wilcox and Tropato are trying to untangle the complexities of this human-falcon bond, and the influence it has on science, art, and history.