Animals

How Baby Falcons Can Prevent Military Plane Crashes

In the past 50 years, more than 20,000 bird strike incidents have been recorded on military aircraft.

RAF Topcliffe in North Yorkshire has been host to Spitfire, a falcon chick which could prevent military plane crashes and save lives.

He is being trained to keep Armed Forces and civilian runways clear of bird activity.

Since records began in 1970, until the most recent figures in 2015, there have been 22,000 bird strikes on military aircraft, resulting in 40 Ministry of Defence planes coming down, with multiple casualties and even a loss of life.

Well-trained falcons have proved to be one of the most effective ways of keeping runways and areas around military bases clear of bird activity, to avoid the risk of bird strikes on aircraft.

Baby Spitfire is still very young and has a lot to learn before he even takes flight but, after training, the bird of prey could help avert an air disaster. 

Keith Mutton and his biologist son Alan Marenghi are from Phoenix Bird Control.

They are responsible for keeping military and civilian runways clear of birds, ensuring their 20 bird of prey arsenal of "mini-athletes" can continue being "lifesavers" for airports.

"It's a dream come true for us and hopefully all the team to work with these birds and jets," Keith said.

Training for a bird-like Spitfire begins in the egg. It takes 32 days to hatch, then the bird makes a chip and starts trying to get out – known as pipping.  

Keith would then hit the whistle so that is the first noise the bird hears.

It takes the bird two-and-a-half days to chip out of the egg and another nine days before actually opening its eyes.

The bird is reared in a fish tank so it can see lots going on around – dogs, sheep, humans.

The more it sees the better as the falcon must be scared of nothing.

Falcons Protecting Airfields Bird Collisions ALAN MARENGHI PHOENIX BIRD CONTROL  K18062021 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Flora, a trained falcon patrolling the airfield under strict watch of handler Alan Marenghi from Phoenix Bird Control.

At 10 to 12 days old, the falcon leaves the tank but must build strength to walk and at about eight weeks from hatching the bird will be ready to fly and begin serious training.

Spitfire and other falcons must learn to be terrifying, to scare gulls, starlings and stubborn crows, but not to kill them.

Keith will take Spitfire to as many scary places as he can – landfill sites circled by hundreds of gulls, Cambridge airport and even the dashboard of his vehicle – to make sure nothing frightens him.

The birds and their handlers only work regularly at certain airfields.

Bioacoustics and pyrotechnics are more commonly used at many bases, but resident birds can get used to the scare tactics.

But the bird team is always on call, however, should they be needed.