Hawk and the City

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An in-depth article exploring falconry and modern-day pigeon control in London, first published by the Boston Globe.

An in-depth article exploring falconry and modern-day pigeon control in London, first published by the Boston Globe

The crows are bothered. There are two of them, large, muscular corvids perched in the tall trees, and their loud, scolding caws echo off the buildings around this posh London square. The crows, notoriously territorial, are angry because Rosie, a 9-year-old Harris hawk, has taken up position on a lamppost.

Rosie, however, is not here to discomfit the crows. Rosie’s job here this early Tuesday morning is to get the pigeons to rethink their choice of habitation and move on, perhaps to nearby Hyde Park where there is a steady supply of discarded lunches. But first one crow swoops on Rosie and then the other, diving so close she could feel the wind off their glossy black wings. She ignores them, just as she ignores the large trucks trundling down the street, the street sweeper nosing the edges of the sidewalk, the passing cars, and people on bicycles. Rosie is calm, indifferent. She glides back to handler Wayne Parsons, dipping low to rise up and land on his leather-gloved right hand, the bell on her anklet jingling. The crows go back to their trees. The pigeons are nowhere to be seen. Rosie does a good job.

Parsons and Rosie’s working relationship is based on an ancient tradition, although just how ancient is unclear. Archeological evidence suggests that Asian and Central Asian cultures have used raptor birds in hunting for at least 3,000 years, and it’s possible that the practice migrated west, appearing in France by the fifth century AD. By the middle ages, falconry was practiced by all classes of European society, but because it was expensive, time-consuming, and not always the most useful way to put food on the table, it was most popular with aristocrats.

Rosie’s job today, however, is closer to one of avian bouncer. Rosie and Parsons are employed by Van Vynck Environmental, a pest control company contracted by a nearby building to keep the pigeon population around the private square in check. Rosie doesn’t hurt or kill the pigeons, nor would she want to: Harris hawks, native to the Southwestern United States, Central America, and parts of South America, are ground game hunters, preferring rabbits and rodents, and kill only to eat and feed their young.

“If I see any pigeons, say at the roof at that end,” explains Parsons, gesturing to the far corner of a seven-story brick apartment building, “I walk down that way, then I call the hawks down, and they go up and move the pigeons on. . . . Just their presence there just moves them on.”

Given the history of using these ostensibly wild creatures as helpmates, asking hawks to play this role seems logical, if not exactly natural. It also satisfies an obligation that David Van Vynck, Rosie’s employer, believes humans have to maintain a small and healthy urban pigeon population. “Pigeons are almost commensal to humans, they’re so reliant on us for their existence that we have to take some responsibility for that and try to manage that,” Van Vynck says.

And, for a lot of people, urban falconry manages that relationship in a manner we can live with: “Most people don’t like lethal forms of pest control, particularly against birds. People like birds,” Van Vynck says, adding that culling creates a vacuum that attracts more birds. “[But] people are more comfortable with something like this, which is really just a deterrent.”

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with it. Indeed, the argument over how to deal with problem birds is emblematic of so many conflicts that arise with human and animal relationships, according to Hal Herzog, a professor at Western Carolina University and one of the founders of the field of anthrozoology. As Herzog puts it, “You have this classic thing of some people put them in the category of pest, some put them in the category of wildlife, and other people put them in the category of pets.” Yet, as cities around the world hunt for humane options for pest control, finding common ground is increasingly urgent.

Though Falconry and hawking were eclipsed by firearms hunting by the 18th century, they enjoyed an affectionate resurgence in the early 20th century. Hawking and falconry became an offbeat passion for Brits in the middle of the century, just in time to ensnare the Van Vynck family.

Van Vynck’s father started the Essex-based company 30 years ago, after he met at a falconry show a bakery manager struggling with house sparrows in his production area. The elder Van Vynck, who was a “bird of prey nut” since childhood and had several trained birds, thought that flying his sparrow hawk might work; few, if any pest control services at the time were using birds of prey. It did the trick, and the company, now under David’s direction, has grown to 20 employees, seven of whom are falconers with two Harris hawks each in their charge.

“People often ask if flying a hawk or falcon leaves some kind of scent behind, if the pigeons think, ‘Oh, a hawk now has moved into the territory and is going to catch all of us,’ is that the reason why the pigeons stay away?” Van Vynck explains. “And it’s not.” The key, he says, is to determine what’s attracting the pigeons to an area in the first place and disrupt it, whether that’s a ready source of food or, in the case of this square, a density of the kinds of roosts that pigeons like — high up on brick facades, reminiscent of their wild habitats on rock cliffs. Rosie’s presence is enough to upset the pigeons’ roosting patterns, inspiring them to leave an area. Fly Rosie once a week, sometimes in concert with other pigeon deterrents, such as antiroosting spikes or netting, and they’ll stay away, he says. The cost for a typical program is £5,000 a year, about $6,600.

“If it’s done properly, it does work,” said Van Vynck, and the company’s longevity is perhaps a testament to that.

Parsons carries a decapitated quail in his satchel to entice Rosie back when he needs to; while he holds it for her in his plastic-gloved left hand, she uses her sharp, curved beak to tear off pieces, snapping cartilage and bone and flesh. Parsons wipes a pink piece of quail off her beak with his thumb while he’s talking.

Van Vynck only uses captive-bred Harris hawks, which he describes as an intelligent and “forgiving bird.” It takes three weeks to train a Harris hawk to fly and come back, but a lifetime of reinforcement. After a few weeks of not working together, for example when a bird is put in a free loft aviary to molt, they can be hard to coax back onto the job. Rosie’s pest control partner, Lizzie, recently went through a molt and is absent today. “She’s not playing ball at the moment, she doesn’t want to come back to me,” explained Parsons, who has worked for Van Vynck for eight years. “Obviously, I can’t take a chance until I know that she’s spot on, because otherwise, she could just lift up.”

Rosie works five days a week, four jobs a day in open spaces and buildings across the southeast of England. Usually, she is flown for four to six hours a day, starting from 4 a.m. Between jobs, she travels in her box on an Astroturf-covered perch in the back of a Van Vynck van. Home is Parsons’ back garden in Essex, in a specially built hutch called a “mews” that she shares with Parsons’ other birds, including several Harris hawks, a red-tail hawk, and owls. Parsons has loved birds since his childhood and trained birds of prey since age 17.

Yet, though Parsons has great respect and clear affection for Rosie, he is clear — she is not a pet. “You have to draw a line with them,” he says. Unlike with a dog or a cat, if hawks or other birds of prey don’t have clear boundaries, they can become avaricious with food or problematically vocal. “Their job is to fly, feed, and go back.”

The question of how to categorize a pigeon — pest or precious creature — is particularly poignant: A white pigeon is a dove, a beloved symbol of peace, and is the same species, Columba livia, as the reviled but phenomenally successful rat with wings, as Woody Allen once called it. While pest control services and cities dealing with them fouling public spaces call pigeons “feral,” those that want to protect them call them “wild,” words with very different connotations. Pro-pigeon groups dispute the claim that pigeons carry or spread disease. The people who employ bird control services are inclined to disagree, or at least point to the damage that pigeon droppings do to their buildings.

And there is some sympathy for the pigeons, at least in the London press: News that one of the hawks employed by the BBC to patrol its new Regent Street headquarters killed a pigeon made headlines in January 2013, along with some subtle tut-tutting about the estimated £60,000 yearly price tag attached to the hawk’s services. (The BBC confirmed that it still employs hawks, calling them an “effective and humane method to deter pigeons and protect the building, staff and visitors. . . . We always ensure value for money and the cost of cleaning the building and surrounding areas if pigeons were allowed to roost would be much higher.” No comment on the cost.)

There are several organizations in southeast England that offer advice on humane bird control solutions, including Pigeon Control Advisory Services, or PiCAS, and the Pigeon Control Resource Centre, or PCRC. These tend to be opposed to employing birds of prey, arguing that it is expensive, ineffective, and actually lethal. “Many pest control companies are now using hawks to control bird populations, selling this method of lethal control as ‘green’ and ‘natural’; nothing could be further from the truth,” PiCAS notes on its website. “Falconry is a blood sport, not a pest control service and should not under any circumstances be used as a method of wild bird control.” The PCRC offered similar arguments and dismissed the practice as little more than a scam. Neither group responded to several requests for comment.

But the reports of pigeon death and the opposition of organizations like PiCAS appear to pose no danger to a growing industry. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which might be expected to back PiCAS, actually seems to support using birds of prey, stating, “We realize there are times where using birds of prey may be used to deter other birds from nesting, roosting, or feeding in an area and that it can be an effective method. In this instance, we would ask that the falconer has full control of the bird at all times and that the problem birds are not taken or injured as a result.”

Ultimately, for humans, using another bird to do our work for us has a kind of moral neatness that we appreciate, pitting a noble helper against a pest. “We use these categories to enable us to be in a morally comfortable place,” Herzog says. “You have a category, you have a label, you’re talking yourself into it.”

And a hawk on the city streets is hard to resist. For all that Rosie puts off other birds, she positively attracts humans. During her hour and a half at the square, she and Parsons are approached by people who know Rosie from her weekly visits and by curious onlookers, people bustling off to work, stopping to ask if they can take a photo. Rosie and Parsons are both used to it.

Perhaps this is what’s really at the heart of why using hawks to patrol pigeons feels acceptable, even positive. Rosie’s improbable wildness — a hawk in Knightsbridge! — is magical and for just a moment, we’re reminded: Nature is never really that far away after all.

Read the original article on the Boston Globe website.