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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

4 Falcons Patrol the Sky Above Pulkovo

MTAkka, one of four falcons recruited by Pulkovo Airport to scare other birds away from the area and prevent bird-plane collisions, perching on trainer Vladimir Semyonov's hand.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Four falcons soar in the sky above Pulkovo Airport, acting as red traffic lights to all seagulls, crows and ducks that dare fly near the busy runways.

The birds are the St. Petersburg airport's last line of defense against feathery intruders that could fly into a plane packed with passengers and cause a serious accident.

"Every year Pulkovo Airport has incidents in which landing or departing planes ram into birds flying above the airfield," said Andrei Sokolov, head of Pulkovo's ornithology service. "Everything we tried previously to counter this produced little result."

At least 10 bird strikes occur every year, although few have proven dangerous. However, the fear remains that a bird might get sucked into an engine or hit an important mechanism, seriously hampering a plane's ability to fly.

So Pulkovo turned to Akka, Kesha and the two other falcons last summer after other methods of combating birds failed. The airport's ornithology service had tried broadcasting special sounds that alarm birds, setting off fireworks or just shooting birds. "However, those methods were not very effective," Sokolov said.

The falcons do not chase away birds -- they simply frighten them off with their presence, as normal birds are instinctively afraid of birds of prey.

"When our falcons circle in the sky every morning, they not only scare away the other birds, but also impress on those birds for a long time that this area is dangerous for them," said Vladimir Semyonov, Pulkovo's ornithologist.

The airport has seen a noticeable difference since the falcons arrived from a nursery in the city of Voronezh in early July. "There have been no bird strikes since the falcons joined our service," Sokolov said.

At least 350 people have been killed as a result of bird strikes since the dawn of aviation, and the problem is growing worse because of an increasing number of birds and planes. The deadliest bird-plane collision was in 1960, when an Eastern Airlines jet struck a flock of starlings and crashed into Boston Harbor, killing 62 people. In 1995, a U.S. Air Force plane crashed in Alaska after geese were sucked into an engine, killing 24.

Pulkovo ornithologists received the falcons when the birds were one month old, the perfect age for training them. Semyonov, who worked with birds at the Leningrad Zoo for 25 years, said training birds requires a special approach. Unlike dogs, birds respond only to rewards, not to punishment, he said.

"If a trainer scolds or punishes a bird, which might work with dogs, the bird won't understand why it's being punished and will merely dislike further training," Semyonov said.

Similar falcon or hawk services operate at airports in other countries, including the United States, Germany, Britain and Poland.