Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
‘The Second Coming’, by W.B. Yeats
The RyanAir pilot of flight FR1102 from Frankfurt carrying 166 passengers, was probably not thinking of his school-book Yeats as he performed a heroic emergency landing on November 11th, 2008, at Rome’s Ciampino Airport, after 12 small starlings were sucked into his engines. Nor the USAir pilot who ditched his plane in New York’s Hudson River in January after a collision with birds. What most paying passengers don’t realise is that in today’s busy airways such collisions are not uncommon. In Barcelona, and 95 percent of all Spanish airports, this potentially disastrous threat is reduced by the use of predatory birds, mainly falcons.
Like many airports, Barcelona’s El Prat stands on a natural bird sanctuary. It is built on a low delta near a large urban centre, much like JFK’s Jamaica Bay or Heathrow’s Thames Estuary, and is the perfect place for migrating flocks to eat, rest and resume their seasonal flights. Birds have been flying for 150 million years. Humans began sharing their airspace only about a century ago. Naturally, collisions occur.
Internationally, recorded bird collisions annually cause over $500 million in damages and 500,000 hours of downtime. From 1960 to 2004, 455 military and civil aircraft were reported destroyed, and 405 lives lost, due to crossed paths between birds of steel and those of feathers. Aviation officials have tried many things to deal with the problem, only to find that the cheapest and most ecological method works best.
“Before 1996, when we started here, they used bio-audio sounds, flares, some airports still use lasers, but nothing scares a bird like a falcon,” said Xavi García, 38, of the Barcelona Falcon Centre. “When I send him up, you won’t see another bird for kilometres. Falcons can change migration patterns. Birds get used to lights and sounds. Once a flock sees a falcon, they won’t return for at least a generation.”
Falcons are the fastest animals on earth. Their cruising speed ranges between 40 and 110 kilometres per hour, with a maximum swooping speed clocked at 440 kilometres per hour. Different species fly at different heights. The average falcon weighs a kilo and has a wingspan of 80 to 120 centimetres. “They’re like athletes,” said García. “We weigh them every day. Their diet is poultry and we measure it. If they get fat, like a footballer they don’t perform well. We train them for about three months before they can work. They can live up to 20 years, but normally work for 12 to 15. We breed our own; most centres do.”
When asked if they are dangerous, García smiled. “For humans no, never, well except for maybe the odd nip on the hand when they are young.”
The Falcon Centre in Barcelona is housed in a bungalow near the control tower at El Prat, not far from where the runways meet the sea. They are responsible for keeping all flora and fauna away from the planes. “It seems an idyllic place to work, except for the 800 roaring engines a day. The job looks peaceful, but it is not. When we get a call from the tower, lives are at risk. A pigeon can ignite an engine. A large sunbathing turtle on a runway can be like a rock. A stray dog can cause chaos while a plane is taking off or landing. Plus, there are the daily rounds to be made and the training of the birds. We keep busy.”
Once a falcon is airborne and hunting, it may be some time before its handlers see it again. “Sometimes they catch something and hide somewhere to feast. Sometimes they get confused in the fog. We have transmitters attached to them and we always find them eventually, but they can be 100 kilometres or more away. The good thing is, they never go out to sea. They don’t even fly over the sea.”
García and his nine colleagues work in teams of three, and look after 80 falcons. On average, each bird flies 30 minutes per day. They start at dawn and finish at dusk. The sunlight hours are the busiest for winged intruders. All of the falconers began cetrería, the Spanish word for falconry, as a hobby. There is no school where one can learn the art of handling the raptors. The only way is to find a falconer and become an apprentice. An untrained baby falcon costs around €1,000, not including gauntlets, hoods, leashes, lures, perches, bells, whistles, other accessories and daily food. Their training is a case study in classic conditioning. “It’s like Pavlov’s dog,” said García. “If I blow my whistle, they salivate. Everything must be consistent and regular. If they perform well, they eat well. They learn very quickly.”
Using peregrine falcons for airport vigilance began in the Seventies, resulting from the work of Spain’s charismatic godfather of conservationism, Dr. Felix Rodríguez de la Fuente. After his death in 1980, in Alaska, while filming a dog-sled documentary for his famous television series El Hombre y la Tierra, an obituary called him the Jack London of Spain. Besides being a television host, writer, medical doctor and pioneer of Spain’s animal rights movement, Rodríguez was an avid falconer and is credited with resuscitating this medieval art. He often spoke out in favour of defending the natural world, and devoted much of his life to efforts aimed at keeping Spain’s ecological balance intact.
The future of falconry looks bright. Not only can birds of prey be employed to protect airfields, but they can also be used in other places where wildlife is not wanted. Power plants, orchards, grapevines and wheat fields are all prime candidates for a falcon patrol. The scarecrow and yelping dog may be a thing of the past, outmoded deterrents.
Although the medieval art is being revived, modern technology is also being used to develop even more efficient systems. A falconer in Canada, Wilford Elemonts of Intercept Technologies, has built a remote control flying mechanism, which he calls RoboFalcon. It is shaped like a peregrine and spans three metres. The inventor claims it is cheaper, more effective and can fly longer than a real falcon.
So swallows, marlins, starlings, crows, pigeons, gulls, parakeets, magpies, jackdaws, herons and all other furry and feathered friends that haunt the Llobregat Delta had best be warned; because when that tiny leather hood is whipped off the knife-like beak of a speed-crazed falcon, and it leaps majestically into flight ready to tear flesh into bite-sized morsels with its talons, it is much safer to be fastening a seatbelt and preparing for takeoff, watching the cabin crew point out the emergency exits and explain the life vests, than looking for worms to eat in the Llobregat wetlands alongside the runway.
First published March 2009.