Falconry Used to Secure North American Airports

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
March 25, 2003

An unusual type of security force has taken wing at North American airports.

Joining dogs that sniff out contraband in the customs halls, falcons have been enlisted to scare off gulls and other birds that can be hazardous for airplanes in the critical moments of take-off and landing.

"What we're doing is utilizing the predator-prey relationship that they use in the wild," said Mark Adam, owner of Falcon Environmental Services, a private company with offices in New York and Canada specializing in the medieval art of falconry and applying it to modern situations.

In the United States, collisions between wildlife and aircraft, mostly bird strikes, cost civil aviation nearly $500 million a year in direct and associated costs such as aircraft downtime, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Just one bird can destroy a jet engine that costs $2 million. "The damage a bird can do to a plane is just astronomical," said Adam.

In the 12 years to 2001, the FAA received 39,177 reports of bird strikes to civilian aircraft in the U.S.—1,613 caused substantial damage and ten resulted in the destruction of the aircraft. At least 138 people died as a result of bird strikes worldwide during the 1990s.

The Bird Strike Committee USA, a volunteer group of federal officials, wildlife biologists, and aviation industry members, calculates that there are one in four odds that a bird strike on a large jet will cause a fatal accident in the next ten years.

Adam and his team of falconers use predatory birds like gyrfalcons, eagles, and peregrine falcons to clear the air. Falconers swing a lure and the falcon follows. The swooping shape of the predator in flight triggers nearby birds to find a safer place to stay. "They say, oh boy, this bird is dangerous," Adam said. "They'll give off an alarm call that other birds can hear for miles."

Falconry: Past and Present

Adam's work began as a childhood passion for falconry. As a student at McGill University in Montreal, he began working for a peregrine falcon reintroduction program. Then he began a pilot study using falcons to control birds at Dorval Airport in Montreal.

Now, he runs falcon programs at New York's John F. Kennedy Jr. International Airport and at civil and military airports across Canada. At JFK, Falcon Environmental Services works with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and federal officials as part of the airport's wildlife management program.

"The idea of using birds of prey to control birds is not a new idea," said Adam. Falcons and falconers began to appear in records from China, Arabia, and Persia nearly 4,000 years ago. From Aztecs to English kings, many cultures have hunted using falcons.

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