Abu Dhabi falcon competition judge reveals what makes the perfect bird

The Most Beautiful Captive-Bred Falcons pageant applies a scientific approach to judging beauty standards

The competition is fierce, the contestants primped and preened, their chests held proud as the judges' circle with discerning eyes.

The Most Beautiful Captive-bred Falcons competition is not your average beauty pageant – it is hard-fought and won by the bird that scores the highest in a number of complex factors.

When it comes to falcons, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, said Dr Margit Muller, one of the contest's regular judges.

"It's a very clearly defined process to evaluate if this is a beautiful falcon or not," said Dr Muller, armed with a tape measure.

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It's very, very competitive because the falconers are very proud of their falcons, you know, they're like their children

"It's very scientific. It's not like you look at it and say, 'well she looks amazing', you have to do measurements to work out the proportions."

Dr Muller is an expert in avian medicine from Germany who has run the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital for more than 20 years.

She first fell in love with the birds during a two-month internship in Dubai, when she was training to be a vet.

Dr Muller, who has written or contributed to more than 30 publications on falcons, is one of the Emirati and international judges at this year's competition, which takes place at Abu Dhabi's International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition (Adihex).

The competitors are falcon enthusiasts who come from all over the Middle East, keen to present their birds and have them judged against their peers.

Categories include pure gyr, gyr peregrine, three quatro saker gyrfalcon, and pure gyr male.

The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon species, with plumage that ranges from all-white to dark brown. The peregrine is smaller, with narrower, more pointed wings, while the saker falcon is almost as big as the gyr, but tends to be browner in colour.

Symmetry and strength

The judges will carefully evaluate the falcons based on several criteria, said Dr Muller, who treats more than 200 falcons a year at the hospital.

"For example, you are measuring the wingspan, you are measuring the length of the leg, the circumference of the chest," she said.

"It is very important to have good strong chest muscles to make them beautiful. You also measure the proportion of the head, compared to the body."

Talons and beaks should be flawless, with no cracks, and the colours should be harmonious and match the feathers, which should have attractive, symmetrical patterns.

"All the feathers need to be flawless, not just the primaries," said Dr Muller.

"The tomial tooth [or notch] in the beak needs to be the correct shape, and the area above the beak – the cere, where the falcon's nostrils are located – needs to be matching the colour of the feet.

"So if the feet are yellowish, then the cere needs to be yellowish. If the feet are a little bit bluish then the cere must match."

The judges are forensic in their examinations and even check inside the nostrils to see if the baffles (tiny bony nodules) are present, because they are key in helping the falcon breathe when flying at speed.

In this contest, however, the speed, skill and pedigree of the birds are not checked. The winner is purely judged on beauty.

The competition is hard-fought and the judges come under scrutiny.

"It's very, very competitive because the falconers are very proud of their falcons, you know. They're like their children," Dr Muller said.

"Each one wants to have the most beautiful, and that's why it is important to have the neutral judging process, because maybe somebody might say, 'Oh she's winning because she belongs to that person.'

"It's not an easy process, by the way. It really takes a lot of time to do that correctly."

The link between beauty and the environment

Bedouins have long used birds of prey to catch food and falcons often became much-loved pets in the process.

Majid Ali Al Mansouri, secretary general of the Emirates Falconers’ Club and chairman of the Higher Organising Committee, said the competitions at Adihex have made Abu Dhabi a leader in the field of events that seek to preserve cultural heritage, conserve wildlife and protect the environment.

The beauty contest will encourage breeders to produce larger and more beautiful falcons in terms of feathers and colours.

This, in turn, will incentivise falconers to buy captive-bred birds, instead of wild birds, and leave more to reproduce in their natural habitat.

The hunting exhibition has become something of a hub for falconry enthusiasts from around the world and dozens of associated companies are set to attend this year, including falcon accessory firms, pharmaceutical experts, and breeders, as well as associations and clubs that specialise in training and hunting with falcons.

Adihex is taking place, in-person, from September 27 to October 3.

To enter the competition, email competitions@adihex.com

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