Falconry and bird strike: a millenary technique for airport security

Birds never collide when they fly in a group. They can evaluate and change their trajectory even when they are flying in a limited space and at great speed. This is a mystery not yet fully revealed. From a human perspective, it is difficult to understand how it is possible that birds do not maintain the same skills when it comes to man-made objects, even of large size: the windows of a building, the lines of high voltage electricity grid, the wind turbines can cause numerous deaths. Men need a new approach to understand why it is so hard for birds to avoid colliding with these objects.

The problem of collision becomes serious for human beings when it occurs between birds and airplanes. This  phenomenon, called “bird strike”, only recently has been raised by the media. The damage caused by this impact can be considerably dangerous. Only one bird, especially of small size, it cannot be a huge problem for the aircraft, but a larger animal, like a seagull or a pigeon, can be. The force of impact depends on several factors: the weight of the animal, the difference of speed and direction. To test the effect of “bird strike” on the fuselage of the plane, manufacturers fire a bird carcass at 1000 km/h (since a plane has an average of travelling time of 800 km/h and a bird could reach 200 km/h). Adding the two forces is easy to see that a bird becomes a projectile, capable of causing considerable damage, as well as dangerous failures of the aircraft, and compromise the safety of those who are on board.

The solution to this problem comes from the Middle Ages and is falconry, one of those ancient techniques that perfectly fit also into places that are in the vanguard of technology, such as airports, protecting the environment (avoiding the use of poison, ultrasound or other mechanical systems). Actually, origins of falconry are to be traced further back in human history and date back to the ancient Egyptians. However, the period of major success of this practice, which was created primarily as hunting, is precisely the Middle Ages, during the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 to 1250. He wrote in the 1240s a treatise still used by those who approach this practice: “De arte venandi cum avibus” (“The Art of Hunting with Birds”), about systems of breeding, training and use of birds of prey.

The training of these animals is long and methodical, it requires great patience and never ends, it continues every day. The hawks are not social animals, and they don’t understand the value of punishment, then the falconer has to work backwards, providing them with food as a reward. Like all birds of prey (the word raptor comes from the Latin “rapax”, which means robbery), the falcons fly and hunt only for food needs and, like all predators, must conserve their energy, and then only fly for food. Easier for them to find their prey, the better. They work well  only when their body and their weight are perfect, like real athletes. Being “opportunistic” in nature, once they understood that it is easier to eat according to the falconer, rather than escape and obtain food for themselves, here is that you create that bond that will last throughout their lives. A strange relationship, something that is created since the ancient Egyptians. The nice thing is that Italy is still handed down from master to master. Usually they eat small chicks, already dead and frozen, and once a week a rat or a quail, because they have a different protein content. Since they eat their prey whole, including legs, bones and beaks, if they do not digest properly, the day after the regurgitate.

Even the equipment used by the falconer comes from the time of Frederick II and includes a glove to protect the arm of the falconer, a lure and a cap worn by the falcons. The cap serves as the input, it is also useful to calm the animals. You put the cap on when the bird is going to work. Without the cap, the hawk is working. At the end the falconer covers the bird to make it understand that it has finished its job and can therefore be moved to the aviary. The lure is made of leather and shaped like a horseshoe. It is used by a falconer as artificial prey during the flight. The falcon make fake attacks on the lure, and this scare every birds that are close to the runway or landing. The only element “modern” is a radar antenna, which is mounted on the foot of the hawk, and serves to identify the animal if it were removed.

Hawks fly more than once a day, every 2 hours, for their physical well-being and to remove those birds who approach to the airport. Since the runaway of an airport will never be completely clean, the falconer must always monitor the situation. If there are not too many birds the falconer doesn’t need to intervene, but if any animal or bird is approaching the runway, he will be ready to throw the hawk. For other birds, in fact, a hawk swooping is a hawk is hunting: this is enough to scare them away. Airports are an ideal habitat for various animals, since there are no humans or other predators, it is easy to find food and shelter, and also because it is a wide open space. With falcons it is possible to clean the runaway in few minutes. For instance, when seagulls see a bird of prey in action they begin to rise. Hawks fly from the bottom, because the aim is precisely to bring the prey to rise, higher than the angle of descent or off of the aircraft, which is around 300 feet, about 100 meters high. If the intimidation flight is constant, other birds or animals will be at a safe distance. The purpose of the falconer is just that: monitoring everything is on the hillside.

Four airports in Italy are using expert falconers: in Bari, Turin, Venice and Trieste. Birds of prey used for this purpose are divided between hawks and falcons that fly high (Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon, Lanner Falcon, Common Kestrel, Saker Falcon), and those defined by low-flying (Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard). It is important to associate each animal with its natural enemy. For the birds (such as seagulls, pigeons, magpies, starlings, other birds of prey, or animals in transit as lapwings, storks, flamingos) are used hawks, for foxes the eagle. Each prey, in nature has its own predator. The sacred, as well as Harris’ hawks are ideal for both strength and resistance to disease. Birds of prey are not captured in the wild, but they are all meticulously reproduced in captivity. To avoid the risk of causing serious harm to the environment, there is rather strict legislation in this regard. All the birds used are regularly purchased in accordance with the provisions of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Even if they could mate, by the third year onwards, this does not happen normally, being regarded as working animals.

There are a lot of falconers, but the true falconers are few. Their job is to try to intervene in a non-bloody way, trying not to hurt either animal to be removed or the hawk. The bird of prey simulates what it does in nature. The prey, however, seeing a predator in action, run away. It is more than sufficient and there is no need to have the victim to get the result. It is certainly a job that requires passion, when you hear a falconer describing what falconry is, you understand immediately how much they love what they do. To the animal activists that have doubts about this ancient practice, it must be said that, even it may seem paradoxical, falconers are animal lovers. For a falconer is unthinkable to kill another animal and the beauty of this kind of technique is that is done in full respect of nature.

(Published in July 2011 on the Scientific Italian Magazine “Newton”: http://www.newtonline.it/post/44/)