It’s not every day you turn the corner of a city street to find a gobby falcon perched on someone’s arm.
When I first met Trevor, I had initially mistaken his high-pitched cries for a squeaky trolley wheel in desperate need of oiling.
[M]OST CITY WORKERS, myself included, perform the trudge to work in a personal bubble, blinkered to most of what’s happening around us, only becoming peripherally aware of other pedestrians in order to dodge them.
The falcon burst that bubble – I struck up a conversation with Matt (the falconer), was introduced to Trevor (the falcon) and a week later I’ve gone from awestruck on the pavement to city rooftop falcon flying.
A week later I’ve gone from awestruck on the pavement to city rooftop falcon flying.
Matt runs his own business as a falconer hired by private companies in the city to keep the gull and pigeon population under control – he’s invited me to ride along and see how he works. “We don’t actually hunt the gulls – hunting them is illegal, so the aim is to keep them on the back foot, discourage them from settling in any one place and if they don’t settle they’re less likely to breed.” It’s a bit like crowd control but with a really cool entourage of hawks and falcons. The gulls, at the moment, are the big problem – mugging and dive-bombing pedestrians on Cheapside, something which I’ve personally experienced.
It’s a bit like crowd control but with a really cool entourage of hawks and falcons.
Below- Matt launches Gary, a Harris’s hawk on his first flight of the morning.
“With a new falcon or hawk, they must get accustomed to flying among a lot of gulls without being intimidated.” I’m climbing a service ladder which leads to the roof, Matt has gone ahead of me, on his arm Gary, a Harris hawk [aka Harris’s hawk], before I even get to the top of the ladder I can hear the gulls going crazy – it’s because Gary’s arrived.
“Part of the training entails bringing them [the working birds] into the gull-mobbed environment and feeding them over a period of weeks before you even fly them – it creates a positive association – it teaches them to be calm, not to get agitated when the gulls build in numbers, it also strengthens the bond and trust between handler and bird.” Glad Gary’s calm, gulls are big buggers and they’re bold too.
Matt explains that gull tactics are to mob a hawk so initially the cry goes up and every available gull in the area will congregate to join the intimidation party. Still perched on Matt’s arm Gary’s stretching his wings. “He knows he’s about to fly and he loves it – he’s excited.” So how do you stop a hawk or falcon from taking a snack on-the-go? “Of course, the odd accident happens but it’s part of the training that they’re rewarded with food after flying.” Also, in the wild Harris hawks hunt cooperatively in packs so today, Gary’s not in hunting mode, it’s more about the exercise. While Matt’s telling me this Gary’s limbering up and the gulls are building up. They’ve now doubled in number since we’ve arrived – less than a minute – Gary hasn’t even flown yet, but the gulls know the hawk’s here.
I thought the idea was to scare them off not bring them in? Matt smiles at my question and I feel like a muggle. “So how it works is the gulls will build up in numbers and try to bully the predator, try to scare him off, drive him away. When the gulls realise that Gary isn’t intimidated they start to fall back, fly higher”. OK, but higher isn’t actually driven off is it? “Once Gary’s been up a couple of times, maybe four or five flights, I’ll take a break for around an hour then come up again with Trevor.” Trevor is the gobby falcon I first met a few weeks ago and unlike Harris hawks, falcons hunt solo.
Hawk or no hawk, flying among a melee of 30 angry, beaked-up gulls takes nerve.
Matt launches Gary for his first flight. The bell on the jess sounds out and the gull cacophony increases. Immediate action, the gulls start mobbing Gary, swooping, diving and targeting him, not making contact but getting as close as they dare. Hawk or no hawk, flying among a melee of 30 angry, beaked-up gulls takes nerve, but Gary is spectacular, he just cruises around effortlessly, ignoring the mob. As we watch Gary, Matt tells me that today is perfect flying weather – blue sky and not much wind. On the roof, there’s a mild breeze but as any crane operator will tell you, the higher you get the stronger the wind becomes. “A strong wind makes it difficult for a bird to manoeuvre and at that height, the wind is much stronger than we’re feeling it down here. The worst sort of weather is rain.” Oh right, so rain makes for difficult flying then? “Not really, it’s just Gary, he hates the rain. It’s hard to get him up and out in wet weather, he’d rather be in his dry box asleep.” Sounds reasonable. It had never occurred to me that birds have preferential flying weather.
Gary lands on a building opposite, some distance away. Do birds just never come back to their handler? Make a bid for freedom? “I once had a bird that disappeared for a week. I was working a building site with him and he just decided not to come back, sat out of reach – there’s nothing you can do. I was there hours and in the end, had to leave him. It took me a week of returning to the site to retrieve him.” So what made him come back eventually? “At the time, I’d only been working with birds for about a year or so, I was really upset about losing this bird, but a more experienced handler told me ‘leave him, after a week he’ll realise he’s not having food or water brought to him and he’s got to do it all himself. Give him a week out in the open, then he’ll come back.’ And that’s exactly what happened. He realised what a charmed life he had – after five days of roughing it on his own he’d had enough.” I know a few parents who’ve told me a similar story.
As I continue to talk with Matt it’s obvious that this is no easy profession. Aside from the care and upkeep, when a bird decides to ‘have a moment’ and not re-call then there’s time and expense involved in getting it back – not to mention the cost of parking in the City which is more than the national minimum wage per hour. Also, Matt explains, businesses don’t understand that for effective pest control he needs to fly the raptors regularly but not to a set timetable. “Gulls are clever. If you turn up at the same time every week they’d soon recognise that pattern. They’d disappear for two hours then return when you leave, so you need to fly raptors regularly, say, twice a week, but ideally, different days. It’s not just about understanding your own animals, it’s understanding the behaviour of the pests you’re contracted to deal with.”
In order to be effective and get results Matt must also educate the companies he’s working with. “Flying the birds [of prey] is really the only solution for managing the gulls and pigeons and it’s a traditional method.” Educating individuals and companies as to the benefits of traditional pest control methods is Matt’s overall aim and ethos for his company.
“There’s a kestrel nesting nearby if the bird catches a mouse that’s eaten poison the result is a slow painful death from coagulants for both the bird and chicks. That’s why I started using the dogs for pest control.” Gracie, the Jack Russell, is waiting for us curled up on the front seat of Matt’s van.
Matt’s ethos focuses on the traditional methods of pest control.
It wasn’t that long ago that we were finding natural solutions to deal with pests instead of using coagulants to kill rats and mice. Initially, it seems abhorrent to our modern, shrink-wrapped sensibilities to even consider putting a dog to work in such a manner, even though cats are already doing the same job in many homes. A dog as working ratter is a more humane solution than poison – it’s a quick clean ending for ratty without risk to other pets and no dead body to try and find under the floorboards.
We head down to the van to collect Trevor. As Matt is still training Trevor, going through that process of making him familiar with the working environment, he won’t be flying Trev but Matt explains why we’re still taking him up to the roof: “Eventually I’ll fly him, but today it’ll be enough that the gulls see him – they recognise a falcon’s wing shape” and in prey parlance that translates as ‘mob a hawk, run like feck from a falcon’.
Trevor is a characterful bird, he is a tri-bred falcon, half Peregrine, quarter Gyrfalcon and quarter Saker falcon and as soon as Matt takes him from his hold he starts to scan the sky, searching, and also to ‘chat’. Trevor is very chatty, which is endearing, much smaller than Gary but with noticeably larger eyes – all the better to see you with.
It’s now 8 am, more people are arriving for work at the surrounding offices and Trevor gets their attention. People love him and are drawn to him – they start to take photos and ask Matt questions.
Matt is as good with people as he is with his animals, patiently answering questions and I’m convinced that Trevor is loving the attention. I mention this to Matt “Trevor was an imprint, I’ve raised him from a chick so he’s really comfortable around people.”
A woman passing by asks if she can stroke Trevor, Matt laughs and says that she can try if she wants to. The woman takes a tentative step forward and Trevor turns his head and fixes his big eyes on her, an intense stare – the woman changes her mind about petting him. I say nothing but think she made the right decision. Trevor is a sweet looking bird but when he’s staring at you that intently you start feeling less like a person and more like a pigeon – it’s an innate respect for the raptor.
We’re back on the roof, Trev stretches and I’m surprised that I notice, novice that I am, the difference in wing shape from Gary, the Harris hawk – Trev’s wings, to me, look like archetypal angels’ wings. Aerodynamically the perfect shape for diving and attacking prey on the wing, known as a ‘hunting stoop’, reaching astounding speeds of up to 200mph (320km/h). The gulls above us suddenly remember they’ve more important matters to attend to. Elsewhere. Not here. This is not a raptor that requires back-up.
Meanwhile, Trev is happily munching a treat, completely chilled with his chick as the mass exodus, caused by his flap and flex, ensues above. The sky is now considerably quieter. Matt brings to my attention how Trevor faces into the wind when he exercises his wings – he’ll get to fly later at home, but for now, Trev’s work here is done.
Trev does the ‘flap’n’flex’. A bit like bump’n’grind but with feathers.
Matt obviously adores his job but make no mistake this is tough work, dispel any romantic fantasies about falconry – it’s as much a labour of love as it is earning a living. Matt is incredibly knowledgeable and I’m aware that I haven’t put a tenth of the facts he imparted in this brief article – but it’s not all about the facts – Matt knows and understands his raptor’s foibles and appreciates their individual personalities – he has shown me how awesome these birds are, to be so close to them and see them in action was a privilege (thanks, Gary for skimming my head with your wing, I’m not going to forget that in a hurry) and how important it really is that we keep falconers working in the City not only for tradition’s sake but for the pure beauty and joy of it.
© Tessa Paine
This is not a sponsored post. Tessa Paine has given permission for this to be reproduced on CabbieBlog. Other articles can be found on Tessa Paine’s Blatantly London. Matt can be contacted at PMP. All links here conform with guidelines set out in Write a Post.