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The Sky Sweepers

Flocks of birds in Italy have already forced planes to make emergency landings. Dressed falcons are supposed to solve the safety problem. They are used worldwide as sky sweepers.

Falcons for flight safety: To avoid collisions between aircraft and flocks of birds, trained birds of prey are to "sweep the skies" at airports far and wide.

A Boeing coming from Frankfurt crossed a flock of starlings on approach. Some birds got caught in the engines, passengers heard a bang and saw flames.

Thanks to the pilots' good reaction, the passengers remained unharmed. But the Boeing was badly damaged and blocked the airport for two days.

"This would not have happened with falcons," says falconer Aldo Miconi from Udine in northern Italy. A single bird of prey can clear the sky over several square kilometres of land within three minutes.

When starlings, pigeons or seagulls see the falcon soaring, they take off. Many airports, from Madrid to Caracas, take advantage of this to avoid "bird strikes", as the jargon goes. At New York's Kennedy Airport alone, there are twelve falconers.

Aldo Miconi was one of the first to use the feathered scarecrows at airports. It was 22 years ago that Trieste Airport turned to him. The problem: countless seagulls were using the runways for resting and could not be chased away even by scare shots, warning lights and ultrasound. So Miconi offered his falcons. "Today there are three falconers on duty at the airport, from morning to night, 365 days a year. And the problem with the birds is 95 per cent solved." Only in one case did trained falcons remain ineffective: when wild falcons hunted for mice at the airport.

The deployment of the birds of prey sounds simple. "The falconer drives around the airport in a car and the falcon accompanies him in the air," explains Miconi, 62. However, this has to be precisely coordinated with flight operations and the falcon has to be well trained. "It's not allowed to fly around. It has to behave like a predator that wants to kill." Animal rights activists counter that his method is more natural than using propane cannons. Miconi has advised many airports. For Venice and Treviso, for example, he trained falconers. In Italy today, falcons serve as sky sweepers in cities like Parma, Bari or Brindisi. Falconry has a long tradition in the country. Even the Staufer Emperor Frederick II, who ruled mostly in southern Italy, wrote the standard work "On the Art of Hunting with Birds" in 1246.

Now falcons are experiencing a renaissance at airports because bird strikes are causing major problems. According to the American "Bird Strike Committee", 219 people have died worldwide since 1988 in collisions between aircraft and birds and other animals. The damage to US aviation alone would be 620 million dollars a year. Most crashes are not serious. But time and again, the fuselage, cockpit windows or engines are damaged. At Milan's Linate airport, two pilots were killed by birds in 2003. Birds have also brought down three Italian military jet fighters in the past ten years. US aviation experts have called starlings "feathered bullets".

In Germany, the "Committee for the Prevention of Bird Strikes in Air Traffic" advises airports and authorities. "We register between 550 and 750 bird strikes in civil aviation every year," says Executive Director Christoph Morgenroth.

In every tenth case, the aircraft is damaged. Take-off aborts and safety landings are rare. Morgenroth attributes this to the good work of the airports. They make sure that "bird species relevant to flight safety" hardly find any food or resting places. The use of falcons, on the other hand, is rare in Germany - because of the bad weather.

Italy, however, is already testing the use of artificial falcons. Rome's Fiumicino Airport is testing a "Falco Robot". The falconer Aldo Miconi snorts with laughter when people ask him about such robot falcons. "The birds cock it right away. They're not stupid."

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Source: Süddeutsche Zeitung


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