At the French Open in Paris, the duels are not restricted to the masters of the game. Each day, before the matches even begin, another duel explodes between airborne rivals: falcons vs. pigeons.
For years, pigeons have harassed both the public and players, often flying low over the courts and forcing players to replay points, or provoking incidents such as the tournament during which a bird dropped dead after being struck by a forehand. Pigeon droppings, it’s been claimed, even alter the trajectory of a ball.
So following the example of other sporting venues like Wimbledon and the Australian Open, the organizers of the Roland Garros stadium decided last year to hire predator birds to chase away the pigeons. Since May 21, every morning before spectators and players cross through the stadium doors, three peregrine falcons and three hawks arrive with their trainer and are put to work.
Stadiums and other sports arenas around the world attract pigeons for obvious reasons: They can get out of the wind and rain, roosting in warm, protected nooks and crannies and able to find plenty to eat.
They can also make life miserable for fans and those responsible for maintaining the facilities, dropping “natural bombs” from rafters and forcing fans to cover their heads and shield food and drinks from more than the sun or rain.
Hence, the French Tennis Federation decision to call in Fauconnerie Merlyn and its flock of falcons and hawks, all with several years of pigeon-hunting experience, to provide air surveillance.
The hawks are released first. They’re bigger, fly lower and are charged with clearing the pigeons from their perches.Then the falcons take over. Peregrines fly much higher and can dive at more than two hundred miles an hour. Their mission: Scare the pigeons away from the vicinity. There’s serious return on this investment – since flying them in, stadium authorities have seen a significant drop in the number of pigeons.
Tennis venues aren’t the only facilities to enjoy the benefit of aerial protection. JFK Airport uses them to steer other birds away from aircraft engines. Leeds United soccer club in England and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in South Africa have been using them for years.
In the Arab Emirates, falconry boasts centuries of sporting tradition and is used to prevent pigeons from trashing buildings. Their droppings are a serious hazard in towns and cities around the world because they can corrode metalwork. Stains on stone buildings can be almost impossible to remove. And pigeons nesting in air-conditioning ducts can contaminate the air supply.
Fauconnerie Merlyn is enjoying the boom in business as their falcons and hawks are booked for the year throughout France, in stadiums, race tracks, corporate buildings and town plazas. “Falconry is taken more and more seriously,” says Ludwig Verschatse,“and our jobs are multiplying.”
But technology is catching up with robotics as fake falcons are becoming increasingly sophisticated and giving Merlyn a flight for its money. Rail authorities at Edinburgh’s Waverley Train Station recently announced they’ll spend £9,000 on a robotic falcon to scare pigeons and seagulls from their recently installed roof.
The plastic peregrines are programmed to rotate their heads, flap their wings and unleash four different calls to strike fear into their prey. The message to other birds: There’s a new “falcon” around so may as well get out of town.