DUBAI // Falconry has been used for centuries as a means of survival. These days, it is also good for stopping pigeons from messing up buildings.
In the running battle to scare off nesting pigeons, 22 highly trained falcons patrol the skies above landmark buildings such as the Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah.
"It's glorified pest control," says David Stead, director of Al Hurr Falconry Services in Dubai. "The only difference is that this isn't pigeon extermination. We're merely trying to drive them away."
Pigeon droppings are the bugbear of town planners the world over because they can corrode metalwork. Stains on stone buildings can be almost impossible to remove. And pigeons nesting in air-conditioning ducts can contaminate the air supply.
Mr Stead, 39, starts his day at about 5am when he goes to the Burj Al Arab for his first "flap". From there, he tours the city, flying falcons for 20 minutes to an hour at each property.
The birds have been trained not to kill pigeons. Not only does that create extra mess, it also fails in the goal of creating mass panic among the pigeon population as falcons can kill a bird in a matter of seconds, and so it "doesn't enter the consciousness of the pigeons", he says.
"It's like 'wham bam wallop, where's Uncle Humphrey?' It's counter to what we want to achieve. When we catch a pigeon, it's a black day for us. But you've got a predator around prey, so sometimes it does go pear-shaped."
Instead, the birds of prey take turns circling the property. "It's much more effective to have a falcon soaring around for 20 minutes looking scary and creating an uncomfortable environment for the birds.
"Pigeons talk to each other and they'll tell each other there's a falcon living over there. Over time they get to learn that this isn't a safe area to be."
Most of the pigeons on beachfront hotels such as the Madinat Jumeirah come from the surrounding area, such as the Police College and some of the large villas in Umm Suqeim.
"The keeping of pigeons in traditional Arab culture has been considered a sign of affluence, so a lot of Emiratis are quite enthusiastic about having pigeons on their buildings," Mr Stead said.
"There are half a dozen pigeons which have arrived here this morning, thinking this place looks rather nice. When the falcons go up, they immediately head back down Beach Road."
Not all birds are so easily cowed. If a flight is left until late in the morning, large crows often arrive on the scene and gather together to try to see off the falcon.
"We call them the crow mafia," Mr Stead said. "They can be very aggressive. Falcons don't just stand up all brave and say, 'Hey, I'm Batman'. They bail out."
In Dubai, Jumeirah Group has used falcons to keep its properties pigeon-free for more than a decade. At the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which opened in 1997, Mr Stead began his work even before the last pane of glass had been fitted.
“They didn’t have a problem to fix back then,” he said. “They just wanted to make sure they didn’t get one.”
Jumeirah Group uses Al Hurr’s services at six of its nine hotels in Dubai.
“This is a very environmentally friendly, effective and natural deterrent against ‘visiting pigeons’,” a spokesman said. “Falconry is a very important element of the heritage and culture of the UAE and this has proven to be a fascinating point of interest for our guests.”
Using falcons as a means of pest control has been around for some time and numerous companies in Europe and North America use the birds to keep pigeons away from airports and football stadiums.
Al Hurr is also on patrol at the Meydan Racecourse and several private homes.