Federal departments and the Canadian military are turning to the ancient craft of falconry to scare off troublesome birds and protect valuable infrastructure across the country. They have spent almost $10-million since 2015 on hawks and falcons to scare gulls, pigeons and other wild birds away from airfields, grain silos, helipads and even sewage research plants.
The birds of prey, including Harris’s hawks, buzzards and peregrine falcons, chase and intimidate wild birds to stop them nesting on federal buildings, destroying sensitive instruments on the roofs of research stations and hitting planes taking off and landing at air-force bases.
The Royal Canadian Air Force has spent around $6-million since 2015 on birds of prey to stop birds striking planes and nesting on airfields. They are flown each day from the gloves of falconers, or in the case of some Harris’s hawks, from a purpose-built “hawk box” on the back of military patrol vehicles.
“They are designed for maximum field of view and act as a mobile perch for the hawks,” David Lavallee, an Air Force spokesman, said in a statement. “When a target species is identified, the hawk can leave the vehicle and return after the chase.”
Birds striking aircraft in flight can cause considerable damage, he said. At air-force bases in Trenton, Ont., and Shearwater, N.S., falcons are flown every day. But endangered bird species or those at risk are never targeted by falconry operations, Mr. Lavallee said.
This summer, the fisheries and oceans department spent almost $125,000 scaring off gulls from a coast-guard base in Sorel, Que.
Kariane Charron, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said a buzzard was brought in to scare off around 300 gulls settling on the docks, which were “affecting among other things the sanitation of the facilities.”
A falconer walked around the area with the American buzzard for three hours a day. When it saw gulls, it flew off to hunt them, scaring them off, though it didn’t catch them, she said.
The environment department has spent almost $125,000 since 2017 using birds of prey to stop gulls nesting at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters – a research complex on Lake Ontario in Burlington, Ont. – and the nearby Wastewater Technology Centre.
In reply to a parliamentary question from Conservative MP Blake Richards, the environment department said the company’s job was to “tether and fly two raptors for the express purpose of scaring the ring-billed gulls and preventing them from nesting along the shoreline, helipad and on the roofs.”
Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman, said the department has used saker falcons in the past to scare off gulls and help reduce bird droppings on sites and vehicles, but they have never caught a gull.
Falconry is an ancient practice and was used in the Middle East up to 8,000 years ago, as well as in ancient Mongolia, where the birds were flown from horseback, and ancient Greece, where falconry was mentioned by the philosopher Aristotle in one of his works. In medieval Europe, it was regarded as a noble sport, with the type of birds people could fly often reflecting rank in England.
Bishops are reported to have brought their falcons to church in medieval England. A Bishop of Ely, near Cambridge, valued his stolen falcon so greatly he excommunicated the thief.
A large bird of prey is shown being carried in the Bayeux tapestry, which depicted the 1066 Battle of Hastings and events surrounding it.
Many of the species used in medieval times, including peregrine falcons, are being used in Canada by the federal government.
Amy MacAlpine, owner of Royal Canadian Falconry, said her choice of raptor depends upon the birds being scared away, adding that using a bird’s natural predator works best as a deterrent.
She said larger raptors, such as the gyrfalcon, would be needed to scare away big gulls, as smaller birds of prey could be mobbed and attacked.
Using birds of prey to scare away other birds is different from traditional falconry where birds are flown to hunt prey according to their instincts, she added.
When hawks and falcons are trained to scare off birds, they are rewarded for chasing them or doing a sweep overhead, but not for catching them.
Occasionally hawks and falcons do catch a bird they chase. But Ms. MacAlpine said falcons cause less of an impact on bird populations than other techniques used to get rid of them, including shooting them and using nets, which they can get caught in.
The Globe visited Toronto's Pearson International Airport in 2016 to see how it uses birds of prey to keep the skies safe for airliners.
The Globe and Mail