How Hawks Are Defending Britain's Towns From Pests

Below is an extract from an article first published as part of BBC Britain - a series focused on exploring our extraordinary island, one story at a time. You can read the full article here: Why Cities are unleashing birds of prey into their skies

It is an image that could have come straight from a parliamentary sketch writer's column. While political hawks and doves clash inside the Palace of Westminster, real hawks patrol the skies above the famous buildings to control the population of feral pigeons – which, despite the name, are actually a kind of dove.

But it is not just at the UK's Houses of Parliament that you might see a bird of prey swooping after problem birds. Hawks are also at work around the Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh and in many other towns up and down the UK – as well as in other countries. Birds of prey have even been deployed in British seaside resorts to keep control of gull populations.

Clearly falconry is a hugely popular pest control measure. But is it effective?

"Falconry on its own is unlikely in most cases to solve the problem," says David Van Vynck of Van Vynck Environmental in Tilbury, UK, who has been in the pest control business since the 1980s.

His company uses a variety of pigeon control strategies. These include falconry, but Van Vynck says the birds of prey are generally only used to deter pigeons from roosting on a given building.

"We fly a Harris's hawk an hour before the pigeons wake up naturally," says Van Vynck. "Do that for about 10 days, and by the end the pigeons are so fed up about being disturbed that they'll find somewhere else to roost."

However, in other situations – particularly when it comes to discouraging pigeons from amassing in a town centre during the day – hawks are far less likely to have a long-term impact, says Van Vynck.

"People sometimes assume that hawks leave behind a scent that will deter the pigeons and keep them away," he says. "Nothing could be further from [the] truth. If the hawk is not there, it has no effect."

When a falconer flies a hawk in a town centre, the pigeons in the area might well scatter. Just as the theory suggests, the hawk is seen as a threat and encourages the pigeons to fly away.

But within a few hours of the hawk leaving the area, the pigeons may well start to return. "You've not achieved any residual effect from what you're doing," says Van Vynck.

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