Clare Finney meets Junior - The Harris Hawk responsible for keeping Leadenhall Market's historic heights remarkably free of roosting pigeons.
Published in Leadenhall Magazine (Winter 2011, Issue 03)
Clare Finney meets Junior - The Harris Hawk responsible for keeping Leadenhall Market's historic heights remarkably free of roosting pigeons
Imagine for a moment that you are a gritty urban pigeon, landing at Leadenhall Market for the first time. You look around inhaling the tantalising smells of stalls and cafes. Paradise, you think, as a man spills a lump of lunchtime curry on the ground. Nodding off that night, you wonder vaguely why these warm, sheltered rafters are so empty - after all, by avian standards this is the promised land. Yet no sooner have you fallen to dreaming of dustbins in summer, then you are woken by a blood curdling sound.
"Junior!" The man's shout is followed by the confident, single minded flapping sound of an approaching bird of prey. One glance at its sharpened beak tells you all you need to know: either you beat it, or be beaten. And then eaten.
Unsurprisingly, not many pigeons look behind them as the hightail it skywards - but if they did they'd be bemused at the scene. Far from seeking to kill them, Junior the hawk wasn't really chasing them at all. He didn't even see them as breakfast. He was just doing his job as part of the bird control management scheme from Van Vynck, a family-run firm that uses predatory species to clear pigeons.
Central to the Leadenhall part of that scheme is the bird handler Chris. At the moment his charge, Junior, is sitting quietly, his head cocked neatly to one side. He looks as if he's about to answer one of my questions. Nevertheless, the moment one of his adversaries comes within earshot, Chris assures me he'll be "off like a shot, totally focussed and determined. He's in sleepy Labrador mode now, but he's like a working spaniel when he hunts".
A few minutes later we see this in action - a lightening turn and a great thrust of his wings that send Junior streaking towards an inquisitive pigeon, stopping, and returning back to Chris in one fell swoop. When I look around people are staring.
As junior swallows his "treat" (which I can't see, and don't want to) I ask his handler if he gets a lot of attention.
"Not really," he grins. "Most commuters are heads down and blind to everything and everyone around them, and I'm here in the morning so that's all I see." He's had bad attention, naturally - what environmental profession hasn't? - and various people shouting at him that what he does for a living is cruel. Yet when it comes to pest control, he says there is only one kind option: to let the hand of Mother Nature take its course.
"Look at the alternatives." Chris points out. "If you poisoned them, it would have to be instant - otherwise you'd have pigeons dropping dead halfway down Fenchurch Street. If you trapped them and then released them elsewhere they'd only return. By using hawks early in the morning once a week, Van Vynck manager David says you disturb the pigeons' sleeping patterns - so that eventually they are forced to leave.
"For me it's like having bouncers outside a nightclub," Chris says sagely. "Just them being there stops any trouble." From Leadenhall they'll go to Trafalgar Square, a notorious watering hole for pigeons, then home to roost - or, in Junior's case, more training. "He's pretty good," Chris says dubiously, as the hawk tries to perch outside Jigsaw and slips off, "but he could still be better. I'd like to get him as good as the Bomb."
"The Bomb" if you're wondering, was Chris's last Harris Hawk, whose placidity in the face of loud noises was renowned.
"Even when the HMS Belfast sounded when we were at Tower Bridge, he wouldn't blink," Chris fondly recalls, looking pensive as he remembers the Bomb sadly "passed away earlier this year". Nevertheless when I ask him if he and his hawks have a string emotional attachment, he is cheerfully pragmatic in his reply.
"There's no love in him," he grins at Junior, "no love at all. He just knows I'm the one with the food." So saying he pats the bulging pocket of his jacket to demonstrate. Almost immediately Junior's head whips round. Well trained thought the birds may be, it is this promise alone that stops them from going the whole hog and eating their quarry - because, unlike their domesticated cousins, these birds will never stop being wild.
"So what is it that's so tempting that the pigeons escape without harm?" I wonder - then wish that I hadn't as, with a mischievous smile Chris brings out a very dead chick. "Are you vegan then?" he asks, as if only a vegan would balk at the sight. Junior meanwhile tuck in.
Chris insist that feeding hawks this way is in fact remarkable green. "At the battery farms, when the eggs hatch, the cock birds are no use to them." he explains. "They used to just get thrown away. No they realise there's a niche demand. It's just like recycling. But with chickens."
Personally I think I'll stick to cereal boxes and coke cans: newborn chicks seem too cute for my brown bin. Still I'm impressed by this efficient use of resources even if - as Chris grudgingly admits - it doesn't always work.
"Every so often there's a pigeon that doesn't quite make it away fast enough," he grimaces. "You know, if they're old or haven't got any legs." It's a rare occurrence, and easily avoided if Easter treats are in good supply, but it is still a sharp reminder.
"They may look obedient," says Chris, "but these birds are trained - not tamed."