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Birds of prey keep Cape Town pigeons away

A bird of prey a day keeps pesky pigeons away at least that is the case for the Cape Town Stadium, where falcons and hawks keep their beady eyes on the pitch.

They are not there to watch a soccer game but rather to ensure feral pigeons do not land at the bowl-like structure for an easy meal. These pigeons have been gobbling around 70 percent of the perennial rye seed that is planted after events to maintain the pitch.

As a result, the seeds do not have time to germinate and thousands of rands are lost on replacing stock. A few weeks ago, the City of Cape Town brought in bird experts Hank Chalmers and Alan Clemo on a six-month contract to scare away the pigeons, and some doves, using natural methods.

“Pigeons here now know it’s not a safe place to eat and sleep because we’ve introduced a predator into their environment,” Clemo says. “Now, if any person steps out of the tunnel, they’re gone because they don’t know if that person has a hawk or not.”

The predator birds come from the Eagle Encounters rehabilitation centre on the Spier wine estate in Stellenbosch, about 50km away from central Cape Town and the stadium in Green Point.

The centre has a predator control arm called Raptor Force. The team consists of Scarlet, a female Peregrine Falcon, Speedy the male Lanner Falcon and Buddy, a male Harris Hawk. Two female Harris Hawks, named Thelma and Louise, also lend a helping talon sometimes.

The birds are not there to kill but to help balance out natural behaviour by creating stronger predator territories. Cities create perfect environments for pigeons to thrive because there is a lot of noise and activity to scare off birds of prey, and plenty of tall structures to prevent uninhibited flying.

Chalmers, dressed in a khaki jacket, cap, jeans and sturdy brown shoes, balances Scarlet on his one arm and has a twinkle in his blue eyes as he explains how the predators scare pigeons away. He tugs at a set of wings poking from his jacket pocket.

A lure pops out. It is a leather ball with real pigeon wings and some food on it. “She thinks it’s real… she’s trying to catch this. While she’s doing that, she’s actually hunting but the doves don’t know that she’s hunting this. They think they’re the prey,” Chalmers says.

The bird of prey is released and sits at the top of the stadium to relax and get a sense of the environment. Clemo swings the lure in a circle in the centre of the pitch. The bird will swoop down and Clemo will twist it the other way so that it misses and flies back up to the top.

“It’s exactly the same as a hunt in the wild. The bird will come down, have a go at a dove, miss and come up, and have another go, and another go, and bang bang. All we’re doing is what they do naturally, we just bend the rules,” Chalmers says.

The birds play the 10-minute hunting game with the lure in exchange for one solid meal a day, either a day-old chicken from a hatchery or pieces of beef or geese.

For the first two weeks the team had to work at the stadium daily. There are now only three or four pigeons brave enough to enter the stadium, so the team comes around twice a week.

“There’s no chance of catching them [the pigeons]. They just bomb into the stands. They run out, run up the stairs to get out because if they fly, the falcon has a chance of catching them. If they stay on the ground, they’re safe,” Clemo says.

Falcons like Scarlet, which are natural predators of pigeons, take on the shape of an aerodynamic teardrop as they dive to strike their prey, reaching speeds in excess of 320km/h.

If these predators eat too much, they become lazy and will not fly. If they eat too little, they also do not fly because they lack the energy. The birds get weighed between three and four times a day.

It is a tricky balance and a difference of a mere 20g for a bird like Buddy, whose optimum weight is 650g, will have an effect.

Chalmers is clearly mad about birds and considers himself part of the menagerie, which especially appeals to Buddy because he is the only raptor species in the world which forms a family and hunts in packs.

“It’s about forming a relationship. The bird cannot work with you if it’s scared of you or you’re not treating it right,” he says, offering Buddy a tasty morsel.


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