A Working Life: The Falconer

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London's Eaton Square is too posh for pigeons, which is where falconer David Bishop and his hawk Emu come in

Published in The Guardian - April 2012

Emu, a very handsome nine-year-old male harris hawk, is sitting on the roof of a flatbed truck in Eaton Square, London. Although the driver can't often have seen a bird of prey sitting on his truck, he is not at all amused. In fact he is glaring at the bird with considerable antagonism. Emu takes the hint and flies back across the road to handler David Bishop.

Bishop and Emu both work for Van Vynck Environmental, and every Thursday morning they can be found patrolling the square, giving the local pigeons a hard time.

Eaton Square is one of the poshest addresses in London – the rubbish left outside the six-storey houses include empty Pol Roger bottles; one or two buildings have flags (not British) or blue plaques detailing how the likes of Neville Chamberlain once lived there. Top-of-the-range Mercedes vie with Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and Bentleys for parking space. So it's hardly surprising that the owner of the Grosvenor Estate, which owns the lease to Eaton Square, the Duke of Westminster, has recruited such an elegant way to control pests.

Bishop's role as a pest controller started in 2005 in slightly humbler surroundings, when Ken Livingstone decided to rid Trafalgar Square of pigeons. "The feeding was gradually stopped and a controlled feed introduced, so the pigeons didn't starve, and this was depleted over an 18-month period. Then we started to fly the hawks after they fed," he explains. "We were there seven days a week, eight hours a day to start with. There were an estimated 12,000 pigeons on the ground at any one time."

The work was very high-profile and attracted a lot of criticism from pigeon lovers. "No one attacked us physically, but they did verbally," Bishop recalls. "The Pigeon Alliance put posters of me, labelled pigeon murderer and spattered with red paint, all around the West End."

Ironically, the one thing the falconers patrolling London aim not to do is kill pigeons. They simply scare them away, to prevent them fouling the buildings and pavements and spreading disease. Key to this is keeping the hawks slightly overweight – when you weigh 1lb 7¾oz, just one extra ounce is enough to make the difference between a few worried pigeons and feathers all over the pavement.

"If a pigeon doesn't react, it's putting itself in temptation's way. But Emu doesn't catch them very often. He works as a visual deterrent," says Bishop.

He only flies Emu in London one day a week – another venue is the Victoria and Albert Museum. The rest of the week he drives to other city centres and commercial sites, with Emu sitting on a perch in a large wooden box in the back of the van. The box means he does not have to be hooded for his excursions.

Harris hawks are not known for their speed but they are social birds and easy to train, making them popular for falconry. Van Vynck breeds a variety of birds to use in different locations, and training to ensure the handler is recognised as the sole source of food and to ignore the kinds of disturbance they might come across in city centres takes about 12 months.

As we stand by the edge of the Eaton Square Gardens, I can see a magpie or two hopping around, squawking at the hawk. A blackbird is broadcasting its mellifluous song, a squirrel runs up a nearby tree and surprisingly, given that we are in central London, we can both hear a woodpecker knocking. Does Emu ever go for smaller prey? I ask.

"They tend to hunt large targets," says Bishop. "It takes as much energy to hunt a small bird as a big one, and the hawks are very greedy. All they want to do is hunt, gorge themselves and then sleep."

Instead, Bishop feeds Emu on day-old chicks, supplemented with quail on Fridays (because he doesn't work at weekends). And although he gets small snacks during work to encourage him to fly back to Bishop, he eats his main meal after work.

Van Vynck recruited Bishop to work on the Trafalgar Square clearance because his then job as head falconer at the English School of Falconry had given him plenty of experience of dealing with the public. Years of displaying birds of prey – including a golden eagle called Fluffy – meant he was the ideal person to explain the falconers' work and introduce the hawks to the public.

As we talk, parents and children on their way to school come up to say hello and ask about Emu. "How far do you think he can see?" Bishop asks one small boy. "Right to the end of the square," the boy replies. "You're right, and he can see so well – about 42 to 44 times better than we can – that he could read a newspaper being held there," Bishop says.

One thing he never does is offer to let people stroke the harris hawk. "Normally harris hawks are very laid back. But Emu is a one-man bird – a bit stand-offish if other people try to touch him," says Bishop.

The hawk stomps around on Bishop's wrist, and is then set into flight towards the balcony of the house opposite. Unlike the other balconies in the square, this one is like a jungle – absolutely covered in trees and bushes, obscuring any view into the building. The inhabitants obviously value their privacy.

Emu, however, does not. First he sits in one of the trees on the balcony, then shifts to the railings. "It's perfect pigeon nesting ground there," says Bishop.

Bishop says he has been "obsessed with birds in general since I was a kid, and I got my first kestrel when I was 11. It's almost terminal. Once you start [being interested in falconry], you just keep going and going."

Just as well, given the hours he has to work. To keep out of the way of traffic and the general public, the pair generally set off for work before dawn, starting at 4am in summer and 5am in winter. It also means he finishes work by lunchtime, and can fly his own birds, including a gyr peregrine falcon, in the afternoon. He lives in Hertfordshire, where he also grew up, and still hunts with his birds and his two English pointer dogs in the Hertfordshire countryside. His freezer is full of partridge, pheasant and grouse, "and there's no lead shot in them – no trips to the dentist".

While we talk, Emu is sauntering around the middle of the square, gliding from branch to branch to balcony rail and then back to Bishop for a treat. He wears a ring on his leg, denoting that he is listed in the independent bird register, and alymeri anklets to which jesses are fitted.

He is also sporting a tracker device attached to a "backpack", a harness that Bishop has fitted to all the firm's birds. "I've only lost one bird permanently," he says. "It was a peregrine back in the big storms of 1987. His mews blew over and he wasn't tethered."

Emu protests a bit when the tracker is fitted, stretching his wings into Bishop's face and hopping around. "Must we go through this every time? Really?" says Bishop. Emu and Bishop seem more like an old married couple than working colleagues.

Bishop's affair with birds of prey predates him meeting his wife, Elizabeth, and she is completely accepting of them, or so he claims anyway: "It was made quite clear from the outset that the birds took precedence. They take a lot of commitment, a lot of looking after."

However he admits Elizabeth is not very keen on the hawks. "She thinks they are scary – the way they look at her and their mannerisms," he says.

Bishop holds Emu so their faces are very close. Does he ever peck you? I ask. "No, that's the dangerous end," he says, indicating the very sharp talons.

The birds live in a mews – a shed in Bishop's back garden that is unheated but protects them from the wind and draughts – which is cleaned out on a daily basis.

I wonder who looks after the birds when he goes on holiday. "We go to Scotland so I can fly the birds," he says. On seeing my face, he bursts out laughing and adds: "Not really," he confesses. "There's another falconer lives very close to us, and we look after each other's birds when we go away."

There are thousands of falconers in the UK ("there also are a lot of falconry widows out there"), and several firms use the technique for pest control in London, according to Bishop. Van Vynck Environmental alone employs about 10 falconers and owns 40 birds, which are used to control seagulls and Canada geese besides pigeons.

The work is perhaps less glamorous than conducting displays at bird of prey centres or on the circuit of county shows, but it pays a lot better: "Working for a pest control company means you can live," says Bishop. "When you have a family, you have to go where the money is."

We have been standing on the pavement chatting while Emu works, but suddenly Bishop steps behind me and says: "Do you want to know what it's like to be a pigeon?" Before I can say anything, he holds out his arm. Emu swoops down and flies straight towards me, a blur of beak and wings, wafting my hair as he swoops over my head to Bishop's wrist.

I decide it might be a good time to switch territory.