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Leveraging Ecology: Harris hawks patrol the Festival de Cannes.

After a seagull swooped onto a table at the the Cannes Grand Hyatt and knocked a glass of wine over on actress Sophie Marceau in 2011, the hotel knew it couldn’t let a similar accident happen again. But what do you do when you have hundreds of unwanted birds that have become so accustomed to humans that they aren’t afraid to drop down right on top of guests enjoying a meal al fresco? You take a lesson from ecology and hire professional fauconniers.

Photo: VICE Media LLC/Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photo: VICE Media LLC/Livia Albeck-Ripka

Since 2012, fauconniers have deployed a squad of five trained Harris hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus), gorgeous and powerful birds of prey native to the Americas, to patrol the grounds during the Festival de Cannes.  The choice of Harris hawks for this task is not arbitrary. They are social birds, living in groups numbering between two-seven. The individuals within those groups operate under a dominance hierarchy wherein the mature female is at the dominant bird, followed by her adult male mate, and then the young of previous years. Not only do they live together, but the group also hunts in a coordinated “pack”. This makes them well-suited for task-at-hand in Cannes. The whole “extended family” functions as a unite without individuals being competitive or territorial.

Photo: Pete Toscano (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo: Pete Toscano (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While bold scavenging birds like pigeons and gulls could seemingly care less about the presence of humans (who are notorious for enabling their bad behavior by feeding them), they are extremely wary of natural predators like hawks. The mere presence of a “pack” of Harris hawks patrolling the grounds seems to clear the airspace of all manner of unwanted avian fauna. Should a particularly rambunctious pigeon, gull, or other bird approach the area anyway, the hawks are capable of attacking the intruder; typically with fatal consequences for the target bird. But this is what happens in nature all the time.

That is what make falconry such a desirable solution to this common urban problem. While not ignoring the necessity of wildlife being permitted to co-exist alongside the humans that are increasingly encroaching upon the remaining (and dwindling) available natural habitat, it is necessary that wildlife must sometimes be restricted and controlled. That control often takes the form of poisons and other means which can have widespread and devastating effects on wildlife which are not the intended targets.

A trained goshawk pursues a pigeon. Photo: "raptrlvr"
A trained goshawk pursues a pigeon. Photo: ‘raptrlvr’

The insecticide DDT, for instance, has had a catastrophic effect on the remaining California condor population. Rat poison kills countless owls, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and other animals that consume contaminated dead or dying rats. Snares and traps are indiscriminate and that can have profound consequences. Data released by the USDA’s Wildlife Services branch reveals that, in 2012, the agency mistakenly caught and killed more than 520 animals in leghold traps and more than 850 in neck snares, including mountain lions, river otters, pronghorn antelope, deer, badgers, beavers, turtles, turkeys, ravens, ducks, geese, great blue herons and even a golden eagle.

While falconry obviously isn’t appropriate for all types of wildlife control, it’s certainly well-suited for the control of unwanted birds in urban settings in a way that likely has minimal (if any) measurable detrimental effects on the underlying ecology of the area. There’s no poison, no trapping; just a group of disciplined raptors doing something very similar to what their wild counterparts do everyday. It’s an elegant solution to a problem that has all too often been addressed the “quick and dirty” way.

Here’s to the Harris hawks at Cannes and to all birds of prey patrolling museums, airports, etc. Fly safe and good hunting.

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