Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Gull Vs Hawkins

Seagulls are causing chaos in Cardiff. We are in the midst of the breeding season, with busy colonies found on roofs of houses, garages, factories and offices throughout our city. Good job the hawk rules the skies…

After being kept awake almost all night by incessant screeching, I woke to find my car covered in mess. I rescued a neighbour’s cowering cat from an attacking gull - at least twice her size – only to have the beast turn on me. Sound familiar?

Phillipa Hawkins of the Falconry Services is busy flying her hawks throughout the spring and summer. With clients such as Cardiff Castle, the Millennium Stadium and Cardiff Central Library, these impressive birds are responsible for keeping many of our most loved landmarks gull-free.

Seagulls are not only a nuisance but can also damage property and even be a danger to our health. Dense populations of the birds can spread diseases such as E-Coli and Salmonella, they can block drains resulting in structural damage, and obstruct gas flues with nesting materials – a serious problem if gas fumes are prevented from venting properly.

Breeding pairs build their nests from early April. The first chicks emerge around the beginning of June. The young birds fledge in August and then take three or four years to reach maturity and breed. The 
life expectancy of a gull is about 20 years.

The gulls tend to return to the same nesting site unless preventative action is taken. There are very few humane methods to kill seagulls – so this is where Falconry Services steps in.

Falconry Services specialise in using birds of prey to deter colonies of pigeons, seagulls and other nuisance animals. 

“Using birds of prey for pest control is the most natural way – it’s what nature intended. As soon as you put a hawk up, the pigeon or the seagull recognizes it straight away. They’ll never relax if they think there’s a falcon in the air that might be hungry!” said falconry expert, Phillipa Hawkins.

Hawkins (who insists the name is purely coincidence!) discovered her passion for falconry around 15 years ago when she volunteered to take part in a falconry demonstration at an agricultural show. She was so taken with experience that she decided to do a one-day training course at a bird of prey centre. A year later she was managing the very same centre. After two years she moved to Wales to work for the Falconry Service - which she now runs.

“I love it,” she said, “Of course, everyone has bad days - especially in the middle of winter when you’re up on the roof, freezing cold and soaking wet - but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

“In the ten years that I’ve been flying birds in Cardiff, I’ve noticed the gull population increasing. And I’ve noticed a change in their behaviour. They’re becoming much more aggressive. All of the Falconry Services staff have been hit on the head by swooping seagulls this year. Some of them have resorted to wearing hard-hats!

“The conditions in Cardiff are perfect for gulls. Over the last few years they have been left alone - so they have been allowed to breed. They have plenty to eat as we leave a lot of rubbish lying around. Humans are, by nature, quite dirty creatures.”

She does, however, emphasise that Cardiff is not alone. She has experienced worse problems in other cities - Gloucester in particular.

The birds flown by Falconry Services are captive bred. They are hand reared by their assigned falconer or ‘technician’. Hawkins’ personal favourite is Madam, a 10-year-old saker falcon.

“I watched her hatch out of the egg,” she said, “She was the first of the batch to do everything – stand, feed, attack my german shepherd… She’s pretty special! I’m not a violent person but I do would do time for her!”

Katie, the harris hawk, is the bird assigned to the Millennium Stadium – why not see if you can spot her soaring above the crowds next time you’re at a game?

Published: The Guardian (Cardiff), 13 August 2010 - 'spotlight' article

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