Home CommentaryStudent Life A portrait of Montreal airport’s falconers

A portrait of Montreal airport’s falconers

by Martin Payette November 19, 2019
A portrait of Montreal airport’s falconers

The falconers of the Montreal airport—along with their deadly sidekicks—are the team outside the fuselage that keeps your flight safe. They patrol the taxiways and runways, keeping the skies, tarmac, and your plane’s turbo-engines clear of meat.

I was sweeping the aviary hallway last summer when a sparrow flew in through the door, which I’d left open to let in the breeze. It landed on the floor, innocently looking for seeds, but absolute horror is all it found. The walls echoed with the cries of the devil, and around every corner sat perched a nightmare darker and more terrible than any feral cat. It promptly flew back into the light.

Of all places, the ickle bird landed in one of the shipping containers converted into the offices of Falcon Environmental Services. It houses a little kitchen, a murphy bed, some outdoorsy stuff and a few sand-covered rooms for our “employees.” The six stone-cold killers in question are named Saguaro, Cayenne, Bazile and Sedona (the Harris’s hawks), Jackie (the peregrine falcon) and Orion (the veteran peregrine-saker hybrid).

The wildlife control officers (WCO) of Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau International are an assortment of biologists (like me), wildlife technicians and falconry nerds. No one calls us wildlife control officers though. In anglophone airports, the wildlife officer is typically called the birdman. In Montreal, it’s le fauconnier.

We wear a khaki shirt — often covered in quail guts — with an embroidered falcon over the right breast pocket, and we sport fashionable accessories at our belts such as a walkie-talkie and a sharp knife. We work solo shifts of up to 16 hours in the height of summer, when the days are longest.

It’s a lonely job, but, unless you’re an astronaut or LEGO set designer, it’s probably still cooler than yours.

I assure you, however, that the phenomenon known in the biz as a “bird strike” is no joke. According to Transport Canada, from 1912 to 2003, reported collisions between birds and aircraft destroyed 80 civil aircrafts, caused 42 fatal accidents, and a total of 231 deaths (not counting the birds). If you’ve seen Sully, the movie about pilot Chesley Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), you know that in January 2009, his Airbus A320 hit a flock of Canada geese after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Both engines lost power, forcing Sully to land in the Hudson River, and heroically saving everyone on board. Yay!

Things didn’t work out so well in 1960 for Eastern Air Lines Flight 375. A Lockheed Electra hit a group of starlings (which are, like, pretty small birds) a few seconds after lift-off, damaging three of its four propeller engines and resulting in a crash that killed 62 of the 72 passengers.

The Life of a WCO

Photo by Mathieu B. Morin.

A typical day for le fauconnier involves clocking in a little before sunrise. We load up the modified plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander with pyrotechnics, firearms and a paintball gun, and take a quick look at our death birds to see if everyone’s still alive and grumpy. Then we meet up with firefighters for the 5:30 runway inspection. They look for FOD (foreign object debris) on the asphalt while we scan the skies and edges of the runways for — ahem — early birds.

Back at the office, we weigh the raptors to make sure they’re at flight weight (which varies between individual birds and seasons), then gut and portion out the food (thawed out quail and baby chickens, yum!). If our birds are too light, taking them out might be dangerous for them. Too heavy and they could get lazy and decide to stay perched on a fence for hours.

During patrols, our hawks sit in a special cage in the back passenger seat of the SUV. They are let loose through the window when we see birds that need to be dispersed. Hawks are not merciful killers, so if they catch something, we run over with the shears to shorten the victim’s suffering. Falcons, on the other hand, knock out their prey first by ramming into them at high speeds, and then they break their necks with a special notch on their beaks called a tomial tooth. They also fly much higher (thousands of feet, even), so we park on a perimeter road far from the runways and let them do wide circuits while we swing a lure on a rope. This makes them visible over a large area and lets everyone know there’s an apex predator around.

In spring, summer and fall, our main prey include gulls, ducks and starlings. Canada geese and herons are also an issue, though they’re a little big for our birds to tackle. We have other means to instill the fear of God in them and other species, such as pyrotechnics, distress calls, laser pointers and dummy carcasses.

Putting aside my sarcastic tone for a second, it bears mentioning that our main focus is to try to scare birds and other wildlife, and to otherwise make the airport as unattractive as possible for them.

Apart from birds, we might also have to manage the occasional fox, groundhog, skunk or coyote. Obviously, little Jackie won’t be hunting a groundhog (mammals are absolutely savage). Scaring and trapping them can work, though it’s not always a happy ending.

Instead of sharing any of that unpleasantness, however, here’s a wholesome story from a colleague.

Last winter, Nathan Crockford, a young taekwondo coach and avid swing dancer with a nice smile, was called for a coyote trapped in the closed-off area between two perimeter fences. The snow was high, preventing the coyote from digging its way out. When Officer Crockford (if I tell the story, people call us officer) arrived on the scene, the poor beast was so exhausted that it calmly let itself be corralled towards a gate.

“It looked like I was walking my dog,” he told me. He set it free in the woods on the other side of the fence. “What’s interesting is the close proximity to wildlife. That’s what I like about the job.”

The winter months are different. Our birds of prey stay fat and warm in their rooms in free flight. The geese and ducks fly south, but so do the snowy owls. Used to the open tundra, the airport feels like home. They perch on the wind indicators or sit in the snow, waiting for mice to scurry out onto the runway where the surface air is slightly warmer.

Everyone loves the snowy owls because they’re majestic and everything, but to us, they’re a total pain in the cloaca (that’s a bird’s excretory and genital hole). Scare them all you want, they always come back. Because we don’t want to shoot them, we have to trap and release. We use spring-loaded nets with bait, though Julie Lecours, our veteran fauconnière, a lifelong scout and also a ninja, likes to sneak up on them while they’re distracted by a plane and catch them with a hand net.

A Strange and Unique Perspective

Our security access also gives us unique behind-the-scenes experiences. You get to recognize the voices of the air traffic controllers, though you can’t exactly pal around over the radio. During F1 season, you suddenly notice that the general aviation bases are packed with private jets. I saw French President Emmanuel Macron’s official plane, Cotam Unité, parked outside my office with associated pomp and circumstance a couple summers ago.

In July, Mélissa Martinez, the newest fauconnière, happened to be passing by during a bomb alert at one of the general aviation hangars. And Nicolas Casgrain, my supervisor, was working on September 11, 2001.

“The scene was surreal because the planes were landing but never departing, and eventually weren’t even landing anymore, the airport became a vast parking lot for planes,” he wrote to me.

Photo by Mathieu B. Morin.

You come to know every foxhole and swallow nest, and the favourite chill spots of goose couples. Lecours, who knows the place better than anyone, likens it to our very own special sandbox to play around in (with a few restrictions, of course).

Despite the bragging rights associated with the job, death is an inevitable aspect of it, whether it’s dealt by a plane, Saguaro or by a WCO. A vegan flight attendant I stopped following on Facebook would be absolutely appalled to see our carcass-filled freezer. But I bet they’ve never spared a thought for all the birds splattered by the planes they work in, or the raccoon mangled by a small jet exiting on Bravo 2 last spring, or the skunk painted on the North Ramp by a dozen aircraft on a beautiful summer day during my first year. It’s sad — and sometimes downright horrific — but if we want to keep flying, this is something we have to either be okay with, or pretend doesn’t exist.

My team and I also cover Mirabel airport, which has its own special assortment of beasts and challenges. The company I work for and others like it are present in many airports in Canada (including Toronto-Pearson) and around the world. It’s a bigger field than you might think, even though most people don’t even know it’s a thing.

The Montreal airport is one of the places where falconry as a bird-hazing method was pioneered in North America. Falcon Environmental Services was founded in 1989 and began a pilot project with the airport, and has been here for most years since. Before that, trials were being conducted here and there throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s by different airports — and as early as the late 1940s in Scotland — but many didn’t take off. There were a lot of logistical hurdles to get over before flying birds of prey around an airfield could be done efficiently and safely.

It’s not an easy gig — what with working long hours and holidays, Bazile’s constant screeching destroying our ears, and the fact that we can never be sure that we’ve actually saved any lives. But it has its small rewards in things like the successful flight of a bird in training and the most beautiful sunsets in town.

 

Photos by Mathieu B. Morin

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