Video: Meet the 'bird whisperer' working at Al Ain Zoo for over 30 years

The father-of-four says that his eldest son, who is 22, is a keen bird enthusiast just like him


Nasreen Abdulla

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Supplied photos
Supplied photos

Published: Tue 2 May 2023, 4:22 PM

Last updated: Wed 3 May 2023, 12:16 AM

It was 32 years ago that Muhammad Thannikkoli was offered a job at the Al Ain Zoo. Hailing from the southern Indian state of Kerala, Muhammad has been an integral part of the zoo ever since.

“I had no experience dealing with animals,” he recalled, speaking to Khaleej Times on the sidelines of the Arabian Travel Market (ATM). “But when I got this offer, I just decided to take it up.”

At the time, Al Ain Zoo was small, with a limited number of animals. The turning point in Muhammad’s life came when a team of animal experts arrived at the zoo from Singapore. While assisting them, Muhammad learnt the ropes of training birds and building relationships with them.

Bird whisperer

Later, when Al Ain Zoo decided to set up its own bird show, Muhammad played a central role in it. “From the Singapore team, I learnt how to manage all kinds of birds, both big and small,” he said. “A lot of [building] a rapport with them depends on how you feed them. I now know how much to feed each bird and how to interact with them.”

His colleagues jokingly call him the bird whisperer for having the knack to become friends with all kinds of birds, no matter how aggressive they are.

“We have several birds that are aggressive and can attack you,” he said. “However, for me, understanding the temperament of the bird is like solving a puzzle. The feeling of having a bird trust you and come to you is unmatched.”

His favourite bird among all the birds he handles is the lappet-faced vulture. “It is a huge bird and looks fierce,” he said. “But it is a softie that is very well behaved, and I am very attached to him.”

However, he adds that it is important to ensure personal safety when training birds. “I have sustained several injuries to my hands [over] the course of these three decades,” he said. “But that is okay because the hands will heal. I always tell my juniors to take care of their eyes and other body parts because birds can severely injure you if you are not careful.”

Blessing in disguise

Before joining Al Ain Zoo, Muhammad was working as a watchman in a building when he resigned after his employer refused to give him leave.

The tenants of the building he worked at were disgruntled as they were very fond of him, and complained. Soon, a lot of people heard of Muhammad’s story, and he was offered several jobs.

Out of all the offers that he received, including ones from Al Ain Airport and the palace, Muhammad picked Al Ain Zoo. “There was something about that offer that made me want to say yes,” he said. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Pictured: Muhammad with his family
Pictured: Muhammad with his family

The father-of-four says that his eldest son, who is 22, is a keen bird enthusiast just like him. “He loves birds and has several parrots that he is quite attached to,” he said. “I don’t know if he will want to work in a zoo like me, but I hope he will carry the love for our winged friends in his heart for years to come.”


More news from UAE