In the 1960s, Britain’s Royal Air Force first used falcons to protect their pilots and planes from birds.
Scaring away birds, the very creatures that inspired man to fly, is serious business. The lives of pilots and millions of dollars worth of technology are at stake when a jet engine sucks up a bevy of birds.
“Once the RAF started using falcons, bird strikes were reduced 78 percent,” said Mike Cooke, assistant director of the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis, Mo.
The technique pits birds against their natural enemies: predatory falcons.
“When the birds see one peregrine falcon in the sky, you can see the whole flock turn,” Cooke said. “It’s magic.”
Last fall, Cooke got a call from Scott Air Force Base personnel in Illinois who wanted to know how to train falcons to protect their planes from starlings.
Fairchild Air Force Base started using falcons this spring.
Spokane International Airport, however, hasn’t had to resort to Fairchild’s tactics because of its location.
“We don’t have the problem they do out at Fairchild,” said Todd Woodard, airport spokesman. “They have lots of ponds and standing water” which attracts migratory waterfowl during breeding season.
Falconry originated some 3,000 years ago in Asian culture. The English adopted the sport in the Middle Ages and have been using falcons to hunt small game ever since.
Falcons are native to every continent but Antarctica, but the sport wasn’t introduced into the United States until the 1930s.
Thirty years later, falconry almost disappeared when the pesticide DDT nearly decimated the population, falconer David Knutson said.
In 1963, the last known nesting pair of peregrines vanished in Eastern Washington.
Since DDT was banned and people began breeding the birds in captivity and releasing them into the wild, falcon numbers are back up.
“Higher than before DDT,” Knutson said.
To ensure that indigenous prairie falcons flourish in this area, Knutson and about a dozen other Spokane County falconers are trying to provide them with a natural habitat.
“On the weekends, we plant shrubs and trees and release pheasants into the wild” near Fish Trap Lake and Crab Creek, Knutson said.
“We can fly these birds when there are prey for these birds.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Raptors rule the runway