Dockyard falconer keeps the gulls away

Falconer John Allen
Falconer John Allen is seen with Pandora, a Harris’s Hawk, near Jetty NF at HMC Dockyard, where he comes three times a week to help keep the area’s gull population at bay.
Photo: Ryan Melanson/Trident Staff

Falconer John Allen keeps HMC Dockyard free of nuisance birds

By Ryan Melanson,
Trident Staff

With its location along a busy waterfront, in close proximity to restaurants and outdoor food vendors, the presence of seagulls at HMC Dockyard could be an issue if left unchecked.

That’s why DND contracts John Allen, one of Nova Scotia’s few licensed falconers, to make himself, along with his birds of prey, a frequent visitor to the Dockyard, letting other birds know they’re not welcome. Allen can normally be seen at the Dockyard about three times a week, where he and one of his three hawks will walk through the area and up and down each jetty, checking for nuisance birds and scaring them off when found.

The potential for gulls to cause harm at the base may not be as obvious as at an airport, for example, where raptors are sometimes used to prevent birds from striking planes or getting pulled into engines, but their presence is still unwelcome around the ships of fleet. The birds will roost along jetties or on buildings to sun themselves, and their droppings can be both a slipping hazard and a sanitary issue, if tracked into ships or offices via dirty boots.

And while the bird of prey tethered to his cowhide glove would have no issue physically removing a gull if allowed to fly free, Allen’s goal is to frighten the birds away from the area, invoking their natural predator-prey response, which is to get as far away as possible from the intimidating hawk and its high-pitched squawking.

“It’s not about trying to kill them, it’s about creating a visual deterrent, a predator presence in the area,” Allen said.

“You can even be 100 yards away, and if I just let her flash her wings, that’s generally all it takes to make the gull want to go somewhere else.”

When he takes his hawks out for sport, however, the birds go untethered and help hunt game animals like rabbits or pheasants, following overhead while John flushes out the prey. GPS trackers can help keep track of them in the air, but they know who feeds them, and generally return without trouble.

Allen’s been practicing falconry since 2006, when he met one of Nova Scotia’s few falconers while out hunting, turning a curiosity that he had for years into something more. He travelled to Quebec for an initial course and began a two-year apprenticeship under a mentor, and now holds a falconry permit through the provincial Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division. This allows him to own birds of prey for use in business, like in his role at the Dockyard, as well as for hunting, which is what originally piqued his interest. His birds, two Harris’s hawks and one red-tailed hawk, live in a heated enclosure outside his home in the Tantallon area, which must also meet certain criteria and pass inspection.

Two years of training is required because of the hard work needed to acclimate the bird to its owner, a bonding process referred to as ‘manning’, and the potential dangers that could arise if an inexperienced falconer gets in over his head with a powerful predatory bird.

“The biggest concern is for the birds themselves, that they’re being properly cared for, but obviously for the public as well, because you don’t want someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing having a raptor and possibly putting someone else at risk.”

But when Allen walks through HMC Dockyard with one of his hawks perched on his glove, it’s clear that he’s in control, and he gets stopped by sailors or other staff passing by to admire the animal or even lightly pet its chest. The bird-control aspect of falconry wasn’t on his mind when he started ten years ago, but he said he likes being able to put he and his birds’ skills to good use.

“It really happened accidentally, I kept getting requests so I decided to give it a shot. But I have a schedule that’s flexible enough to allow me to do it, and it’s been interesting to be here and see all the ships up close. I enjoy doing it.”