There’s Never a Dull Moment for Vancouver Airport Falconer
A conversation with Falconer Kristine Kirkby
Kristine Kirkby is a falconer. But she doesn’t use raptors to hunt, as is typical with falconry— the ancient practice of hunting wild game using a trained bird of prey. She works with them to scare other birds away from Vancouver International Airport for the airport’s wildlife management program.
Photo by Emily Fleming
Kirkby is a part of a highly trained team of humans and raptors that keep the runways and airspace safe by chasing away the many geese, ducks, and other birds that like to congregate at the airport. Airplanes collide with birds on a regular basis. The US Federal Aviation Association reports that there were nearly 180,000 bird strikes in the US with civil aircrafts between 1990 and 2015. The strikes are generally fatal to the birds involved and can cause damage to aircraft, even leading to crashes such as the 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 that resulted in an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in New York City.
Kirkby and her team are applying falconry in an innovative way to prevent such strikes. By using falconry, they are keeping the runways safe with environmentally minded methods and fostering a dialogue of non-lethal wildlife management at airports in Canada and the United States. I spoke with Kirkby recently about how a practice that originated in Mongolia and dates back to 4,000 to 6,000 BC is being applied in the field of wildlife conservation, and about the moral challenge of working with captive animals.
How did you come to be a falconer? What does it mean to you professionally and personally?
When I was three, Golden eagles became my favorite animal. From watching The Rescuers Down Under, a cartoon where a little boy rides on the back on a Golden eagle, I thought that you could ride them. A couple of years later I saw Golden eagles at the Ontario zoo for the first time and thought, “I cannot ride that bird.” I was a little let down but they were still my favorite. During the same trip, I was five, I was picked out of the audience to have an owl to fly to my glove.
In Ontario, my university had a raptor center. They had some un-releasable birds that needed care, so I volunteered there throughout university. It kind of snowballed after that. I worked at a zoo, the same zoo where the owl had flown to my glove. After university I moved to Vancouver to do Cooper’s hawk research on an urban population of hawks. We were doing a project on toxicology where we were trapping Cooper's hawks and taking blood samples and measuring pollutants. Through that research, I got connected with the falconry team operating at Vancouver International Airport and convinced them to give me a job. The company is called Pacific Northwest Raptors and I've been working with them for five years.
Pacific Northwest Raptors started as an educational organization revolving around falconry and then the company grew and started taking on contracts to do wildlife management and bird abatement. We have contacts all across Canada and we do falconry for wildlife management at other airports and construction sites. We have some landfill contracts to scare away gulls. Besides my work with falconry at the airport, I also work for a program that traps wild birds of prey at the airport to relocate them.
Why is wildlife management a concern at airports? How does your work at Vancouver International Airport address this problem?
Vancouver airport, like a lot of airports, is by a large body of water. It’s on an island and it’s on a big migratory pathway known as the Pacific Flyway. We have mountains just north of us so a lot of the birds that fly down from northern British Columbia, the Yukon, or Alaska are coming across these mountains and they see this big green haven that is the airport. We don’t get much snow here and for many species it’s one of their first stops that has food year-round. Its very enticing for a lot of birds, so the result is that we have a lot of birds on our airfields.
Wild birds are an issue at airports because if they get hit there can be damage to the aircraft to varying degrees. If a pilot decides to return to the airport because they're concerned about the damage, that can cause huge delays and its a cascading effect. I'm sure you’ve been delayed on a flight. If there is a suspected bird strike and the pilot reports it, you have to check to make sure the runway is clean before the next aircraft takes off, which can compound the problem and you can have planes waiting to land. If a pilot sees birds on the runway they might decide to delay the takeoff. There's the direct cost of repairing a dent or other damage on the aircraft and then the indirect cost of delays. Addressing bird-strikes forms the basis for our falconry program at the airport.
In Europe, falconry supports a considerable black-market in wildlife trade, and results in wild, rare birds of prey being trapped for falconry as well as chicks being taken from nests. What is your take on falconry through the lens of animal rights?
All the birds that we fly have been raised in human care, and they're all captive-bred. We never take birds from the wild. They're really comfortable around us. It’s a partnership, and they become our co-workers. We adore them, probably too much. But with animals in captivity there is always a moral dilemma. If you don't have that, then you're probably not suited for the job. You're probably not providing the quality of life that you should be, or striving for the best. We try to keep their lives as enriched as possible. We let them breed, let them fly in flighted aviaries, and let them explore. That helps for sure, but there’s always that challenging moral question. They wouldn't do too well in the wild. For example, captive-raised birds might not understand wild birds' territories. Many wild birds die of natural causes in their first or second year and some of the birds we have might be perfectly capable of hunting with us, but day-to-day, they might not be able to sustain that [in the wild]. We want to see raptors thriving in the wild. I think the people that are practicing falconry, generally, love to see them in the wild.… I think that at the end of the day if you do not have that moral dilemma then your not doing your best for the birds. You always have to be thinking about that.
Why is falconry a unique tool for wildlife management?
Especially when it’s cold and windy at the aiport, the shorebirds can be pretty desperate to stay [on the airfield] and tend to ignore traditional methods [to chase birds]. They’ll tolerate a propane cannon going off beside them when they're hungry. Whereas if they see a falcon, because they've evolved with the serious threat that falcons pose, they recognize it as a predator and they have to leave. They can't really become habituated to falcons. Additionally, our falcons can also pursue problem birds in parts of the airport without paved roads or good access and move them further away than traditional methods might be able to. They can also see much further than us, and in greater detail, so they often find birds hiding in places that we cannot see.
Many different species of hawks, falcons and even owls have been used in falconry over its long history. What species do you fly for your work at the airport?
Most of our bird team is made of peregrine falcons. They're amazing. You can use them on all of the problem birds, especially the shorebirds such as Dunlin and black-bellied plovers. We also use hawks, Harris's hawks, which are a very popular falconry bird. They're really great to work with. Super social, dynamic, a lot of fun, and cooperative. We use a bald eagle called Hercules. He's amazing. He's really good at moving geese. He'll just fly over them, he knows that’s his job, and the geese don't like that and so they move. We also have some peregrine hybrids, and gyrfalcons. We switch it up, but I'd say the bulk of our team is usually Peregrine falcons. For the airport, our team is made up of up to 10 birds, but Pacific Northwest Raptors has many more.
Another really cool thing about flying the peregrines at Vancouver International is that there are wild peregrines in the area and sometimes they work together with our captive falcons. It’s so cool to watch.
Airports are obviously not a traditional setting to practice falconry. What are some of the challenges of flying birds at a busy airport?
We’re lucky to have many birds to pull from in our company because we need to have the right birds flying at the airport. We need to have very responsive birds that will come back when we need them to come back and that avoid hazards on the airfield. We spend a lot of time introducing our birds to the airfield. We're lucky at Vancouver International because we have areas that are not close to active runways or taxiways where we can train and get our birds used to the surroundings. A lot of basic training can happen at our center where we have an awesome team of trainers. Then we can do a slow introduction to a place like an airport. The [raptors] could become a hazard if they weren't super comfortable and responsive and comfortable with us as well.
As for humans operating on the airfield, we all have to go through a lot of training. In order for us to work at the airport we have to talk with ground [control] and ask for routing to different areas on the airfield. You always have to maintain contact with [the air traffic control] tower or ground. Because of this, we always operate as a team. We work in pairs so that if someone is flying a bird on a controlled surface the other person can be monitoring the radio and operating the vehicle. Usually you’re listening to two radios at a time, sometimes more. At first that was overwhelming, but you get used to it and learn what you need to be keyed into. You have a call sign. It becomes pretty fun listening to airport operations on the radio. Hearing the hilarious things that can happen at the airport... there’s never a dull moment.
How far do your falconry birds get when they're pursuing other birds?
Generally we have an eye on them and we have chosen target problem birds that we would like them to chase. They get a reward for these chases, so they tend to come back to us pretty soon after they are done a pursuit. Some will span the airfield, and further, to pursue problem birds, so that can create a range of several kilometers. We really like to see them explore and use the hunting techniques that they're developing. We always want to keep them in sight and make sure they stay away from hazards but if its safe we let them go as far as they want. They are wild animals and they have minds of their own and they might get carried away on a hunt. We fly them with telemetry so if we do lose sight of them we can go find them. It usually leads to some fun adventures. Retrieving your falcon in the city, people think you’re crazy.
Does Pacific Northwest Raptors collect data on their operations and do they use it to inform their operations?
Yes, the airport has their own program that we use to input every movement. Every initiation with wild birds, even if we clap our hands at birds, gets entered in our computer. That gives us a good idea of populations of birds at the airport throughout the season and year to year as well.… The team is mostly made up of biologists. Everyone that’s on the team is really interested in ecology and they want the birds we are managing to be able to thrive in the area.
Can you describe how you feel when you are working with a trained raptor? How has it changed your perception of the natural world?
A few of the birds on our airport team have been working there since they were just a few months old, and it has been incredible to watch them learn to hunt, and develop their own unique strategies. They keep you grounded, and are very responsive to body language and mood, so you have to make sure to not let stress or frustration come in between that partnership. We see them as our teammates, not as wildlife management tools. In terms of the natural world, I think that flying trained birds has made me appreciate wild raptors and their power and resilience even more than before. It's a rough world out there for raptors, most don't make it to a breeding age, so the ones that are successful are very strong and competitive. One of my favorite experiences to date has been watching wild young peregrine falcons learning to hunt, while I was climbing a rock face near where they had hatched. Watching them practice and play is such a natural high, and it reminds me of some of the falcons on our team that we have watched grow up. Working with captive raptors has also made studying wild raptors a lot easier for me too.
You recently traveled to Western Mongolia to the Golden Eagle Festival. What was that experience like? Do you think it will influence your work with falconry in Canada?
There is a totally different approach to falconry there. They learn from their fathers and grandfathers. It’s a family tradition, whereas the sport didn't really establish in North America until the 1930s or 40s. Most of the hunters actually still ride to the competition on their horses with their eagles on there arms. As we drove to the festival, we were driving by all these falconers riding to the festival through the desert.
In general, I was surprised by how big a part of their lives falconry still is. I thought at this point falconry would be more of a show, done just for the competition. But it’s actually their way of life. The hunters are wearing the pelts of the animals they have hunted using falconry birds.
I had mixed feelings about how they flew their birds and how they treated their animals. Some of them were so great with their birds and you could tell they adored them and I really think that those people were the most successful. The birds really seemed to trust them and it seemed like an easy relationship. We met Aishol-pan of the Eagle Huntress documentary and we watched her at the competition. She was so calm and sweet with her bird and she did so well.
From my experience working with our birds, the contrast at the competition reinforced that if you treat an animal a certain way they respond accordingly. They’re wild animals and your trying to establish a partnership, but at the end of the day it’s up to them whether they’re going to work with you or not.
What was it like being a female falconer at this competition? Were you able to share your work with some of the Mongolian falconers that you met?
Its pretty cool that our company has a lot of women as employees and is run by women. The site supervisors for the airport contract have been myself and another woman. At our company, there’s no gender inequality at all, but traditionally in falconry there has been a lot. That’s what the film the Eagle Huntress is about. In Europe too, traditionally falconry was practiced by men, except the lady could have a Merlin, because, you know, she can't handle anything bigger.
There was a huge language barrier but we showed Aishol-pan and her father pictures of us with eagles. They were really excited. There was a big language barrier, so you know, lots of smiles. We thought it would be cool if she knew that we were women that supported hunting with eagles. I think its tough on her. There are mostly men involved and you can see in the documentary that she is given a hard time for competing. But there were two other women competing when we were there, very young girls. It’s great, it’s changing.