For nearly a decade, Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport has been using birds of prey as part of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority’s (GTAA) wildlife control program, one of the largest of its kind in North America. The birds, including gyrfalcons and nationally threatened peregrine falcons, deter other birds that all too often collide with airplanes.

Collisions between birds and planes can be a serious problem. According to Transport Canada, there were 1,283 reported collisions between birds and Canadian aircraft in 2007, 57 of which resulted in precautionary landings and another 29 in aborted takeoffs. According to Rob Shevalier, wildlife control manager with Falcon Environmental Services (the company GTAA contracted to carry out its Pearson program), the use of birds of prey has significantly reduced the number of such collisions at Pearson airport, which he says have gone down by 10 percent a year since 2000 when the program began.

Birds of prey are raised at Pearson through a process called hacking. Falcons aged 35 to 40 days are put in a large aviary, also known as a “hack box,” for about 10 days, after which the falcons are allowed to fly out of the aviary to stretch their wings and explore. Prior to migrating, birds are recaptured and trained for the wildlife control program. “While the birds are out on their own, they perfect their flying and hunting techniques, but if they’re unsuccessful at catching prey they can always rely on the hack box for nourishment,” says Shevalier, adding that, “our wildlife program is acknowledged by Transport Canada and the U.S. Department of Agriculture as one of the premier programs in North America.”

But not everyone supports using birds of prey in this way. Mark Nash, director of the Canadian Peregrine Foundation (CPF), compares the goings-on at Pearson to letting a child roam across a busy highway. And, although he supports all airports having wildlife control programs, he takes issue with hacking birds of prey in a busy airport environment.

“The hacking method is utilized by biologists and scientists for restoration and recovery of bird species,” says Nash. “It should not be used in any way with regard to wildlife control or bird control.” Besides the method of taking young birds away from their parents, says Nash, these birds quickly learn that human beings provide food. Even though food is commonly placed covertly in a tube at the side of a hack box, Nash maintains that the birds can still sense human involvement.

Nash and CPF have made their concerns known to the Ministry of Natural Resources, and believe the matter is being addressed, though they have yet to receive an official written reply. Shevalier insists that the GTAA program adheres to all provincial laws and that Pearson’s hacked birds play a vital role in keeping birds and Ontarians safe.

by Yvette Zandbergen