High Flyers in the City
High Flyers in the City
Published in the Country Sports Magazine - Autumn 2001
Dale Rutter and Pete Garner find an ancient art thriving in an urban setting.
Throughout history, man has had a paradoxical relationship with birds of prey – symbols of power, efficient competitors for game and esteemed hunting partners for peasants and princes alike. In our modern world these paradoxes persist.
While fewer of us now live in the countryside, fewer still work there and fewer again earn their keep by working with animals.
David Van Vynck, a thirty-year-old falconer from Orsett, Essex, is in exception, for he has adapted the ancient art of falconry into a successful business started by his father, Alan, 15 years ago. Not with peregrine falcons searing through the sky over heather clad hillsides in pursuit of grouse or with goshawks exploding out of woodland in pursuit of pheasants and rabbits. David’s business, ‘Van Vynck Pest Control’ specialises in bird control in challenging urban environments.
David’s team of six falconers and Harris hawks concentrates on cleaning feral pigeons from a wide variety of locations and buildings in London and other major cities. Significant and prestigious locations include the National Gallery, Victoria and Paddington Stations, BBC and Channel 4 offices to name but a few. While tourists enjoy feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square and London’s parks and gardens, the droppings, which the birds leave behind them, are less attractive, especially to property owners. Furthermore, feral pigeons can and do carry a variety of harmful and unpleasant diseases including Salmonella, Ornithosis, Histoplasmosis and Cryptococcosis.
Because of their intelligence and flexibility, Harris hawks are the most suitable hawk for this challenging work explains David and Chris Jordan, falconer and, incidentally, slip Steward to the North Herts Coursing Club. The origins of the bird control business lay in the scattering of sparrows from a bakery in Basildon, Essex with a sparrow hawk.
However, that was before Harris hawks from the New World were widely available in the Uk. While Harris hawks are less difficult to train they do have to be ‘manned’ and made ‘steady’ to a very high degree. They must also be worked at hunting weights equivalent to the body weights at which they might be flown at ground game such as rabbits and hares. However, David and his team do not use their bird clearance hawks for hunting or their hunting hawks for bird clearance work.
Interestingly the hawks that earn their keep through out the year by clearing unwanted pests tend to get more flying time than their hunting cousins. Indeed, seeing David and Chris’s hawks respond instantly to their recall whistle betrays many hours of training. Once ‘manned’ and trained the hawks are introduced to quieter roof top locations and gradually flown in more demanding environments.
The company’s success, David suggests, has come because thought is given to why pigeons are using a particular site. He points out that pigeons use a location for three reasons: roosting, nesting and feeding. Once the reason for the pigeons’ presence has been ascertained an ariel campaign with falconers and Harris Hawks can be undertaken. The objective is not to catch the pigeons but to move them on, break up large flocks and interrupt their breeding cycle. This can take place in any month, for some pigeons rear up to four broods a year.
Typically a site is visited daily for several weeks and thereafter once or twice a week to keep the pigeons on their toes.
Like anyone working with wildlife and animals the clock is governed by them. Work rotas for the team of falconer’s starts at 5am prompt. Roosting birds need to be tackled at dawn and dusk as they arrive at or leave their roost sites. Feeding sites are more usually covered during the middle of the day. Once pigeons have been dispersed from a site, a wider variety of smaller birds may fill the niche that they have left. Indeed while the Van Vyncks have completed successfully with other bird controllers, ironically they now face natural competition from nesting peregrines in London and on one rare and memorable occasion David spied a hobby while working there, proving perhaps that the divisions between town and country are themes played out more in the minds of people than in the lives of wildlife.
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