Birds of Prey for Bird Control
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OverviewThe use of hawks and falcons to remove pigeons and gulls is becoming ever more popular in the UK with raptor-specific companies starting to compete with conventional pest control services for business. The use of a raptor as a pigeon removal option is commonly marketed as a ‘green’ and ‘natural’ method of control that is ‘humane’ and ‘in tune with nature’. It should be fully understood that flying a raptor as a method of control is not a non-lethal method of control, nor is it ‘humane’. Raptors cannot be trained not to kill the target species and when they do catch a bird the resultant spectacle of the raptor tearing the prey to pieces cannot, under any circumstances, be perceived as being ‘humane’. It is also the case that a majority of the raptors that are used for the purpose of pigeon removal are not the natural predator of the target species and therefore this method of control cannot be considered to be ‘natural’ or ‘in tune with nature’ either.
Flying a raptor as a method of pigeon removal has its roots in falconry where a hawk or falcon is trained to kill animals or other birds, normally for pleasure or for sport. Falconry is considered to be a blood-sport and subsequently, those companies that offer falconry services are providing their client base with a highly controversial service that is certainly not proven to be an effective method of bird control. For use as part of a bird scaring system on landfill sites or for airport runways the service may have some value, but in respect of urban applications the use of a raptor to remove pigeons is not only expensive but can be the source of highly negative publicity for the client. If a raptor goes ‘feral’ during a control operation and catches and kills a pigeon or gull in front of staff or onlookers the negative publicity that is inevitably generated can be extremely damaging for the client. Raptors do not necessarily kill their prey immediately and therefore the prey can remain alive for anything up to 10 or 15 minutes whilst the raptor eats the bird alive.The use of raptors within the pigeon removal sector has marked a change for an industry that is often perceived as shying away from publicity, good or bad, in favour of a more discreet approach to the issue of bird control. For decades commercial bird control has involved extensive and excessive use of lethal controls (culling) in an effort to resolve entrenched bird-related problems. Scientific research*, however, has found that all forms of lethal control are not only ineffective but also deeply unpopular with the general public. As a result, the pest control industry has maintained a low profile. With the introduction of raptor-based controls over the last 10 years, however, the image of the industry has begun to change with pest control companies starting to talk publicly about the controls they use and particularly those controls that they suggest are ‘green’.
The use of hawks or falcons to disperse birds is not a new method of control in the bird control sector with hawks historically being used to disperse gulls and other birds from waste disposal sites, landfill sites and airports for many years. Their use in urban environments for the control of pigeons and gulls, however, has been less common. The principle of using a raptor to remove pigeons in urban applications is to visit a site 2 to 3 times a week initially and fly the raptor for 1-3 hours. Providers of the service suggest that as the weeks and months go by, visits will be reduced based on the fact that the raptor has created a ‘territory’ into which the target species will learn not to enter. The effectiveness of the service, however, depends upon the ability of the raptor to instil sufficient fear in the target species to ensure that the flock deserts its feeding or roosting site. Where the removal of pigeons and gulls is concerned, this is highly unlikely to happen. It is also the case that flying a raptor cannot be undertaken in poor weather conditions, a further limitation for this control option.Most companies offering this service also provide conventional pest control services and often recommend that a cull will be necessary, prior to flying a raptor, in order to reduce bird numbers so that the raptor will be more effective as a deterrent. Most providers of the service also suggest that raptors can be an extremely effective and cost-effective method of control providing that the client is prepared to continue using the service for extended periods. If flying a raptor as a bird scarer is effective then why would the client need to invest in a culling programme? The reality is that most experts within the pest control industry believe that flying a raptor as a method of control is simply a gimmick and has little or no effect as a stand-alone method of control. Where a cull is recommended prior to the use of a raptor, the client sees a reduction in bird numbers and assumes that this reduction is as a result of the raptor being effective when in reality it is as a result of the cull. The client then continues to use the service until bird numbers rise back to the pre-cull figure (which they invariably do) and only then is the effectiveness of the service brought into question.
Another reason why flying a raptor as a method of control is less than effective as a pigeon removal option is due to the species of hawk or falcon commonly used. The natural predator of the pigeon, for example, is the peregrine falcon, a bird that can achieve speeds of up to 200 miles per hour in a dive and one of the few birds that has the speed and the manoeuvrability to outpace and catch a pigeon in flight. The peregrine falcon is rarely if ever used for this purpose in the bird control sector, with the harris hawk being the most commonly used raptor for pigeon removal work. The harris hawk is relatively slow in flight, much slower than the feral pigeon and therefore the pigeon does not view the harris hawk as a threat, whereas the peregrine falcon would be perceived as the ultimate threat. The fact that the harris hawk is not the natural predator of the pigeon and is not a native species in the UK, combined with the fact that the harris hawk is unlikely to catch a pigeon in flight, renders this species a poor choice where scaring pigeons is concerned. Pigeons are highly intelligent birds and they will never be deterred from their feeding and breeding sites due to the presence of a harris hawk for a few hours a week. A raptor may have the effect of removing pigeons from their existing roosts and perching areas when the bird is first introduced, but pigeons quickly realise that there is little threat and although they will be wary of the raptor, they will not move far from their feeding sites. As soon as the raptor has left the site the pigeons will immediately return to their perches and the client is left with no protection. For a raptor to have any effect on a feeding flock of pigeons the bird would have to be on-site 24 hours a day and even then, the presence of the hawk would not be enough to deter pigeons from exploiting a regular food source. In the wild, hawks only kill to eat and feed their young, not for pleasure, so once the bird has made a kill it is highly unlikely that the bird will to continue to work and it is also likely that the target species will be aware of this.
Raptor control services are now being marketed more strongly as a means of scaring roof nesting gulls from buildings and residential dwellings in urban areas. The use of a raptor to scare gulls is even less effective than the use of a harris hawk to remove pigeons. This is because hawks and falcons are commonly ‘mobbed’ by gulls and other large birds such as corvids (crow family) when they fly too close to feeding or breeding areas. Gulls and other large birds have little fear of predators such as hawks and falcons other than when they have young and then their response is likely to be more, not less, aggressive toward the predators. Hawks and falcons have little or no effect on roof nesting gulls outside the breeding period and during the breeding period, when gulls can be a serious problem for property owners, they will be quickly chased away by breeding gulls rendering them completely ineffective as a control option.As with all scaring techniques and devices, the target species will quickly habituate to the use of a raptor, whether or not the raptor is the natural predator of the species concerned. Therefore at best, the raptor option can only be seen to be appropriate as part of a wider control system. For landfill sites and airport runways where multiple scaring techniques are commonly used, the raptor may be effective up to a point. For urban applications where scaring techniques are rarely used due to the potential for human disturbance, anti-perching products would be a far more appropriate option rather than the use of a raptor or any other scaring device. Raptors are only as good as their handlers and a poorly trained bird will do little work and as a result will pose little or no threat to the target species. Even well trained birds will sometimes fly away and sit on a building some distance from the client site (which the raptor is supposed to be protecting), in some cases taking hours for the bird to return to the handler. Hawks and falcons can be trained up to a point, but when in flight or away from their handler their natural instincts take over and the handler can do little or nothing if the bird chooses to attack a protected species of bird or sit and refuse to fly. The client still pays for the service, however, whether the hawk works or not.
Negative publicity has dogged the use of raptors in the pigeon removal sector with barbaric spectacles such as the hawk handlers in Trafalgar Square ‘throwing’ their birds at juvenile, sick and injured pigeons in front of children and visitors to London constantly making the headlines. This type of macabre sight, where a hawk tears a live pigeon to bits as tourists look on, is anything but ‘green’ and ‘in tune with nature’ and as such cannot be taken seriously as a pigeon removal option. Similarlly, the use of a raptor by Nottingham City Council in 1999 attracted extremely negative publicity for the Authority. The Council brought the hawk in for a 2 month contract costing ratepayers £5000, in an effort to remove pigeons from Nottingham city centre. The hawk had no effect whatsoever on the pigeon population, but was the subject of a TV documentary as a result of the fact that the bird was tearing pigeons to pieces in front of the general public in broad daylight. The negative publicity generated was extremely damaging for Nottingham City Council and the £5000 of public money spent on the programme could clearly have been put to better use.The use of a raptor for the purposes of pigeon removal is a bandwagon that many falconers and enthusiasts are jumping on and yet in most cases, these individuals know little or nothing about bird control. Even renowned falconry experts such as Jemima Parry-Jones are highly critical of the use of raptors for the purposes of bird control, in the main due to the potential for injury to the raptor. The use of a raptor may appear to be a humane and natural bird control option but in reality it is very far from that. Handlers require no training in either pest control or falconry in order to offer their services as raptor-specific bird control experts and yet the novelty of this method of control has ensured that the marketplace is overflowing with experts making astonishing claims about the effectiveness of the service that they offer. Falconry may have been popular in the middle ages but it is clearly not perceived as being an appropriate nor politically correct means of controlling and killing pest birds in the 21st century.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is the UK’s Government body that oversees the Wildlife and Countryside Act and produces legislation to which the pest control industry must adhere. The following information is taken from a document provided on DEFRA website entitled: ‘Review of international research regarding the effectiveness of auditory bird scaring techniques and potential alternatives’. By J Bishop, H McKay, D Parrott and J Allan.
“The success of this method of bird control is based on the fact that many birds have a natural fear of falcons and hawks as predators, so their presence in the area encourages problem species to disperse. The natural reaction of most prey species is to form a flock and attempt to fly above the falcon. If this fails, they will attempt to fly for cover and leave the area (Transport Canada, undated).”
“The species of falcons and hawks used depend on the bird pests present. They should preferably be a bird predator of the pest bird species as occasional kills will reinforce the perception of danger (Grubb 1977, cited in Erickson et al. 1990). The peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and the goshawk (Accipiter gentiles) are most often used (Erikson et al. 1990). Raptor use is mainly limited to airports where the risk of birdstrikes is high and a variety of measures are taken to ensure aircraft safety, though in the UK, falcons are also frequently used to deter birds from landfill sites (Baxter 2002c).”
“When using falconry for bird control on airfields, the raptor must be clearly visible to discourage target birds from entering the area and to chase away birds already present. Actual capturing or killing of a bird is not the object (Roeper 2001). Falconry is an expensive method of bird control as the birds require special care and training and a specialist handler, and often a number of falcons must be provided to operate at different times of the day. For many aerodromes the additional time and expenditure cannot be justified (CAA 2002). However, falconry is popular with the public as it is environmentally friendly and considered humane as the target birds are not killed but merely chased from the area (Dolbeer 1998), though the most effective falconry does involve the occasional killing of the prey species.”
“Roeper (2001) analysed the mean number of bird strikes reported per 100 landings and 100 departures at Travis Air Force Base, California, before and after the introduction of a falconry programme. His results indicated that falconry reduced the number of strikes and also reduced the severity of strikes in terms of mean dollar costs of aircraft damage. However, these cost savings appeared to be less than the cost of the falconry programme. He recommended that research be continued to determine when habituation to the falcons occurred and to determine which species of birds were not deterred by the falcons.”
“Successful bird control using falconry was achieved on military air bases at Istres, France. Between 1979 and 1983, the numbers of bird strikes were reduced from 16 to zero (Briot 1984). Dolbeer (1998) evaluated the effectiveness of shooting and falconry for bird control at JFK International Airport, New York. The study indicated that shooting reduced bird strikes but falconry did not.”
“The use of falcons and hawks on landfill sites in the UK has been evaluated by Baxter (2000e; 2002c; undated), and has shown varying success. Numbers of scavenging gulls and corvids were reduced when falcons were flown, particularly from dawn to dusk, though poor weather conditions when the birds could not be flown allowed the gulls and corvids to return to feed. Hawks (red-tailed hawk and Harris hawk) were less successful. These raptors generally take ground prey like rabbits when hunting, so their interest in pursuing corvids and gulls was minimal (Baxter, undated). Habituation to the hawks occurred quickly and within four weeks gulls and corvids resumed feeding at the landfill.”
“Although expensive and time consuming, falconry has the potential to remove hazardous birds from areas of land more quickly than can be achieved using conventional bird control methods, and they can also extend their influence into surrounding land where access may be restricted. However, other bird-scaring methods are often equally or more effective and economical (Erickson et al. 1990). Falcons appear to be more successful than hawks at bird control due to differences in prey species. Like many other control techniques, poor visibility and bad weather restricts use, and the birds must be flown regularly to sustain their effectiveness.”
The cost of this service varies considerably from company to company. Most providers of the service will insist on a demonstration prior to quoting due to the fact that when a hawk is first introduced into a flock of feral pigeons it will have an immediate effect. Charges range from £60-£80 per ½ hour - 1 hour through to £150 per visit for up to 3 hours.
To date we have been unable to find any user reviews for raptor control services but we will update this section as and when user reviews are made available to us. If you are able to provide a user review for raptor control services please contact the Pigeon Control Resource Centre.
Comments from the Manufacturer/Distributor:
Editorial comments:The use of a raptor as a bird control option is clearly a highly debatable and expensive method of control with few, if any, guarantees of success. In most cases the cost of the service alone renders this control option prohibitive for a majority of property owners and the issue of negative publicity for the client is a further consideration. The fact that the client will need to use the service virtually every day and for several hours each day in order for the raptor to have any effect on the target species will necessitate an indefinite contract, potentially costing over £1000 a week. To put this figure into perspective, the average budget put aside for pest control services by most commercial property owners for a small to medium sized building, which will include the control of rodents as well as birds, is normally less than £1000 a year.
The most worrying aspect of the ever-increasing use of raptors in the pest control marketplace is the fact that most of those offering the service know little or nothing about bird control, particularly those with a background in falconry. When a client is asked to pay out large sums of money for a control system that is not only considered to be ineffective but which also requires the contractor to provide the service indefinitely, the reputation of the industry as a whole is compromised. The average building can be effectively proofed with an industry standard product such as the anti-roosting spike for a fraction of the cost of a one-month contract for a raptor control service. The essential difference is that once the building has been protected by effective anti-perching products such as anti-roosting spikes the property owner can forget the problem. When using raptor control services the contract is open-ended and the effectiveness of the service is, at best, questionable.Experts within the field of falconry, such as Jemima Parry-Jones, an international authority on the subject, have been highly critical of the use of raptors for the purpose of bird control, which speaks volumes about this method of control. Real concerns exist over the safety of raptors used for bird control, particularly when being flown in urban environments. In town and city centres the sheer volume of overhead cables and wires and buildings with mirrored frontages present very considerable dangers to birds that have no history of flying in these environments. Raptors such as the kestrel are sometimes seen in city centres, with small numbers breeding and hunting exclusively in urban environments, but this is the only species of raptor that is regularly seen in town and city centres in the UK. Urban kestrels will feed almost exclusively on small birds, rarely pigeons and never gulls, and therefore this species presents no danger to the most common urban pest species. When a large raptor is introduced into a foreign environment such as city centre where sights, sounds and moving objects abound to distract the birds, the safety of the raptor is brought into question, irrespective of how well trained the bird may be.
A good example of a handler unable to exert control over a raptor is the case of a raptor that was being used by a falconer as part of a pigeon removal operation in a suburb of Norwich in 2005. When the bird decided that it had had enough of working it flew off into Norwich city centre where the bird attacked a pigeon, bringing it down in front of horrified shoppers and diners at lunchtime where it proceeded to tear the pigeon to pieces whilst still alive. The pigeon was apparently alive for some 15 minutes whilst being eaten, according to onlookers. The negative publicity surrounding this type of botched pest control operation simply acts to bring the pest control industry into disrepute. Similarly, the actions of the hawk handlers contracted by Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, in Trafalgar Square have done little to persuade the public that falconry is anything other than an inhumane bloodsport.
Horrified shoppers look on as raptor eats a pigeon it has attacked and
brought down in Norwich City centre, 2005.
These photos appeared in the Norwich Evening News 1st December 2005 and are provided courtesy of the Norwich Evening News.
Flying a raptor as a method of control cannot be considered to be an effective nor a cost-effective means of controlling any species of pest bird. The service appears to be an outlet for falconry hobbyists in the main and even where the service is provided by a bona fide pest control company, such as the company used in Trafalgar Square, the standard and public acceptance of the service is far from guaranteed. The Pigeon Control Resource Centre cannot recommend this service other than for use on airfields and waste disposal sites and even then there is doubt as to the effectiveness of this control. For the control of pigeons and gulls in urban environments the service is simply a waste of money and in virtually every case those experiencing problems with pest species of birds would be better advised to install anti-perching products or look at other scaring options.
*Daniel Haag Wackernagel.
PDF on DEFRA website entitled: ‘Review of international research regarding the effectiveness of auditory bird scaring techniques and potential alternatives’. By J Bishop, H McKay, D Parrott and J Allan.
Also commonly known as:
Raptor control, hawk control, raptor flying, bird control, falconry
Relevance to pigeon control:
Birds of prey are commonly used for pigeon control and gull control in urban areas and the control of multiple species on landfill sites and on airport runways