Darren Smith has Gothic tastes. Dungeons, dragons, swords, and sorcery—that's his kind of thing. The one-time server even trained for a part-time gig as a falconer at Toronto's Medieval Times for the fun of it. Then, nine years ago, he met Rob Shevalier.
"Do you want to be flying budgies around in a cage for the rest of your life?" Smith remembers him asking. Ever since, he's been flying hawks and falcons for Shevalier's wildlife control outfit at Canada's busiest airport.
"What we do here matters," says Shevalier, whose rad-sounding title is Falcon Environmental Services' VP of wildlife control.
Smith interjects. "And the cool factor is through the roof."
The company works out of several Canadian airports to scare wild birds away from planes in order to avoid potentially catastrophic collisions, like 2009's "Miracle on the Hudson" when an Airbus A320 made a miraculous emergency landing on water after striking a flock of geese.
Located in a cluster of prefab buildings at the edge of Pearson International Airport, the company's Toronto operation patrols a sprawling 4,800 acre swathe of land complete with five runways, two creeks, retention ponds, and protected greenspace—a perfect habitat for wild birds. Ducks, starlings, turkeys, and even coyotes can get into the airport. To scare them off, Shevalier's staff works with 30 hawks and falcons as well as traps and a pack of dogs from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset. They even have a massive, mean-eyed 12-year-old bald eagle named Ivan who chases the biggest nuisance animals: great blue herons and Canadian geese.
"He also scares a lot of construction workers," Shevalier laughs.
By contrast with Pearson, most American airports accomplish the same goal more cheaply: with pyrotechnics and shotguns.
"Birds learn from other birds, and they can't learn anything when you shoot them all," Rob says. "We do have guns, but it's a last resort. What we do is wildlife management. We're not here to annihilate animals—we're here to work with the environment."
Loose-lipped and easygoing, Shevalier worked as a Rolling Stones roadie and airport ground crew before starting in falconry 16 years ago. Now, in charge, he hires people who he likes.
"You just look for a certain demeanour," he says. "Attitude is huge."
Airport or outdoors experience is a bonus. But with the exception of Smith, most of Shevalier's team had no prior experience with birds before landing their jobs.
"I like to bring them in from scratch and then train them," he says.
The gig isn't only scaring off wildlife. When animals—whatever they happen to be—make their way into the airport, the team has to deal with them. Snakes on a plane? They've done it. Scorpions in cargo? Check. They've even pulled a Cuban tree frog off of a vacationer's chest.
"He felt it moving around on the plane," Smith laughs. "It was just a tiny little thing. I remember, all they tell us over the radio is, 'There's a lizard coming in from Cuba in this guy's shirt!'"
The guys show me where their birds sit patiently tied to perches, waiting to fly. There are all sorts of falcons and hawks. In one room, Shevalier gingerly caresses Flash, a Gyr-Peregrine falcon hybrid he trained a dozen years ago.
"He's actually one of my longest-lasting relationships," he laughs. "But he doesn't love me… You're just a vehicle for food."
A raptor, he says, will not show affection like a parrot. Smith knows—he keeps a cute little cockatiel as a pet.
"She'll nestle up underneath my chin and pick my stubble," he says. "You got out in the field with the falcons or the hawks, and when you release them, they don't need you for anything."
Before each flight, the birds are weighed in like prize fighters. They live on a strictly measured diet of frozen quail and are always kept with an edge of hunger—a glutted bird won't give chase. They're hooded before being placed on a perch in an SUV. The birds are either flown by hand or through a rolled-open car window. Each is outfitted with a radio transmitter.
Living up to two decades, the captive-bred birds are trained from a young age. The process can take weeks or months—it depends on the bird and the falconers' experience. At first, the skittish birds have to learn to be handled and not get distracted by their fast, roaring environment.
"One of the things that I do—it's going to sound kind of silly but it works really well—is sit in a dimly lit room watching TV," Smith says. "They get kind of entranced by it and you can touch their feet, run your hand down their back."
When a bird starts to relax on the thick leather glove, hunger will begin to overcome their natural fear of humans. You start by throwing them morsels of quail until the bird will eat directly from your hand.
Once the birds will take food from you, training really begins. It starts with stepping up, hopping, then flying to the glove. The bird gets a treat for each trick. Every time they eat, a whistle is blown so they associate the sound with food.
Every year, a few birds do take off for kicks. Some can be gone for a few hours. Some disappear overnight. One, catching a thermal, was once discovered in Montreal weeks after fleeing Toronto. Young falcons and hawks are particularly likely to chase wild tail in the mating season.
"They have the option to fly away, but they still come back," Smith says, adding that all of the guys work best with the birds they've trained.
"It's like your kids," he says. "Even if they're horrible, they're yours."
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