The pigeon detectives

Saloon Pigeon droppings are messy business. John Mather meets the falcons who keep the Burj Al Arab clean.

David Stead of Al Hurr Falconry with his co-worker, Bandit.
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John Mather meets the falcons who keep the Burj Al Arab clean.
Talking with the falconry expert David Stead, I try to address the purpose of his work delicately. But he is quick to tear away any pretences. His job is to use falcons to stop pigeons from splattering droppings on guests and property at Dubai's most expensive hotels. Most notably, his company, Al Hurr Falconry, keeps the flawless exterior of the Burj Al Arab, Dubai's icon of opulence, faeces-free.

"That's exactly what this is for," he says without hesitation. "The mess pigeons make is just phenomenal. That's why we exist." We are standing in the arrival car park at Al Qasr hotel in Madinat Jumeirah, surrounded by the luxury that has earned the chain its reputation: lush palm trees, man-made rivers and well-heeled guests. The Burj towers in the background. "It's pigeon heaven," says Stead, looking around at the replica Iranian wind towers and horse statues. "So many nooks and crannies."

Al Hurr Falconry protects eight facilities in Dubai. When I asked to see the falcons in action, Stead suggested that Al Qasr would give me the best view. "Pigeons are more terrified of falcons than anything else in the world," Stead explains after introducing his colleague, Jannes Kruger, and Mary Jane, a four-year-old peregrine Falcon perched on Kruger's arm. Mary Jane is the pigeon's natural predator; the falcon is the only bird of prey that can keep up with the winged menaces. A pigeon would win in a head-to-head race, but in the real world falcons close the gap with their hunting style. Once a falcon climbs high, tucks in its wings and begins a free dive, it can reach speeds of 140 kilometres per hour. As Stead puts it, "The falcon folds its wings up and drops like a stone."

On the day of my visit, there are about six pigeons sunbathing on Al Qasr's towers. Most fly here to enjoy the sun and man-made rivers. At 7:30 in the morning, it is already hot; Kruger and Stead want to get Mary Jane in the air before the humidity gets too harsh. After Kruger removes her hood, the falcon lifts into the air. As she gains altitude, the lounging pigeons panic. They are genetically wired to flee when a falcon enters their airspace. Within seconds of a falcon's ascent, Stead explains, "any pigeon that's worth its salt is in Sharjah."

He's right; about half of the pigeons abandon the area immediately. The rest follow Mary Jane, testing her. Stead uses a lure to encourage the falcon to climb higher. As she nears swooping altitude, the remaining pigeons make a bee line for home, wherever that is. "This is perfect," says Stead. "She is looking dangerous and impressive." Intimidation is what Mary Jane is all about. The falcon is trained to act as a gangster, using the threat of violence to scare unwanted birds away.

A small Indian myna remains perched on a wind tower, safe in her knowledge that falcons don't hunt mynas. This is for the best: Al Qasr's manufactured tropical environment would not be the same without their cheerful chirps. But pigeons have to go. Their droppings are acidic, and thus damaging to buildings (and potentially to guests' health). Killing the pigeons, though, would be "almost detrimental to the whole process," Stead says. Dead pigeon bits are just as unpleasant as live pigeon droppings. "We're not trying to recreate nature."

Kruger, a wildlife conservationist, nods in agreement. "She killed many a bird in the first year," he says, running his hands down Mary Jane's back. But the falcon has since calmed. Today, she is a lazy Mafioso who would rather be rewarded with dead, de-feathered quail meat than hunt for live pigeon. Kruger shows me the bait: it looks like a miniature raw chicken breast with a still-feathered wing sticking out. According to Stead, it is "much more attractive than anything else in the world" to Mary Jane.

The falcon is in the air for little more than a minute before all the pigeons disappear. Kruger whips the bait out on a rope, and hotel guests watch with slight shock as Mary Jane swoops under the valet awning to lunge at it. "She's just making sure it's dead," Stead says. On a second pass she lands and nabs her prize. Kruger picks her up. While the falcon rips at the quail breast with her beak, he jokes with Stead about how fat she is. "She's a beast, frankly," Kruger says, wiping away some raw quail meat splattering on his shirt. "I love her, but she uses me for food."

Stead and Kruger fawn over Mary Jane's success as if the bird was their child. The summer is peak mating season for pigeons. Two weeks ago, there were a dozen encroaching on Mary Jane's territory; today she has cut that down to a handful. Stead partially attributes the success to Jumeirah's "proactive approach" to pigeon control. He started chasing pigeons in Dubai ten years ago at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which was built over an old hotel known for its booming pigeon population. Jumeirah recruited Stead before the first guests arrived. "It's much more straightforward to create a pigeon-free environment" rather than reducing an already expansive population, he says, adding that most clients approach him because conventional methods have failed. "It's not a cheap process," he says. "I'm not going to lie to you."

"The reason you're writing this for your newspaper," Stead notes, "is it is absurd." And the absurdity will continue. Though the current generation of pigeons may have taken the hint that they're not welcome on Jumeirah's multimillion dollar properties, their offspring will return to the land of palm trees and rivers. "We can't avoid having pigeons breed like wildfire," Stead says. And though falcons don't procreate so swiftly, I have to ask Stead whether they too leave undesirable droppings. "It's one a day, compared to the thousands you get from one pigeon," he answers, then pauses. "We do spend our days shovelling s***, but that is at our facility."