Falconry is still a popular sport in the Gulf state of Qatar – enthusiasts can even have their birds of prey treated at a special falcons-only hospital. ERIC NATHAN reports.

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and nowhere does this seem quite more apt than in the diminutive Gulf state of Qatar. It is here that falconry is an extremely popular and venerated sport.

In Arabia, birds of prey were historically captured and trained by Bedouins in order to hunt game to supplement their diets. In present day Qatar, the tradition of falconry remains a major sporting activity, particularly among wealthy Arabs. Some of the birds are captured during their migration, often using pigeons as bait (hence the origin of the expression ‘stool pigeon’).

Other falcons are bought ‘off the shelf’ from one of several falcon shops that exist in the Thursday/Friday souk in suburban Doha. A visit to one of these can be quite an experience if you’ve only ever seen canaries for sale in your local pet store. While the shop owner quietly sips ubiquitous Arabian tea in a corner of the shop, the dozen or so (mostly hooded) falcons sit around on shallow perches waiting to be appraised by potential customers. Valuable raptors can fetch several thousand dollars.

Falconry is such a popular sport in Qatar that Doha has its own falcon centre, a veterinary hospital exclusively for falcons. Here, Arabs immaculately attired in their traditional white thobes (also known as dishdashas) bring their sick or injured falcons to be examined, diagnosed and, when necessary, operated on by a vet. Convalescence then takes place in a special quarantine room. This windowless, green-carpeted room with hooded falcons sitting forlornly on evenly spaced perches is so bizarre that you would be excused for thinking it belongs in a Terry Gilliam movie.

The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest creature on the planet. It can attain speeds in excess of 300 km/h during its hunting dive (called the stoop).

Details of the structure of the nostrils of falcons have been adapted for use in the air intakes of modern fighter jets.

Apparently, during the oil boom, rich Arabs would take their falcons to fly them in the mountains of Pakistan and it was not unusual to see the entire first-class cabin of an airliner on this route filled with Arabs and their falcons.

Falconry is traditionally associated with the Middle Ages and East Asia however archaeologists have found evidence of it in the Middle East dating back to the 1st Century BC.

• Eric Nathan travelled with Qatar Airways (0870-770 4215; www.qatarairways.com), who have return fares to Doha from £377 plus taxes. For more information on Qatar, see www.qatartourism.com.