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article imageWinged guardians protect Prague's air travellers

By Eric Johnson     Jul 5, 2002 in Lifestyle
PRAGUE (dpa) - Blue sky, puffy clouds and the red rooftops of the Old Town blend in a dreamy pastel for air travellers gazing out of jetliner windows as they approach or depart from Prague's Ruzyne Airport.
What travellers probably never see, however, are the graceful and sharp-eyed birds of prey patrolling the skies outside their cabin portholes.
Prague's airport birds - about a dozen falcons and one golden eagle - are the winged guardians of the sky lanes. They fly under the careful direction of Ruzyne's birding expert, Jan Marek, who has trained the majestic creatures to flap and glide vigilantly far above the runways.
The birds' critical task: to prevent flocks of starlings, hordes of sparrows, pairs of ducks and the occasional stork from colliding mid-air with passing jetliners - collisions that can ruin engines and risk human lives. They accomplish the task by killing a few and scaring off the rest.
Marek's task is to keep the birds fit, fed, efficient and airborne every daylight hour of every day.
Marek has managed the airports' "biological scare" programme for 23 years and has worked with birds of prey for 43 years - ever since he was 8 years old.
It's a job he takes seriously, never forgetting the enormous responsibility of protecting the thousands of flights and five million people who fly through Prague every year. But it's also a fulfilling job that allows Marek's spirit to soar with the birds he loves.
"They are like children," Marek explained while inspecting the pens and perches where his birds sit quietly between work shifts. "They're not like domestic animals, like horses.
"In the field I can hold out my arm, and the birds will fly down from 2,000 metres high to land," he said. "At other times they can disappear in the blue sky, or fly above the clouds."
Marek said he takes advantage of the birds' natural instinct to hunt, turning that ingrained urge into a powerful force for frightening thousands of birds at a time. The falcons scare away huge flocks by soaring nearby, picking out a likely victim which has strayed from the group, plunging toward the target at speeds up to 400 kilometres per hour to kill it.
Others in the flock, witnesses of the gruesome death, respond by fleeing as fast as possible.
"It is their life to hunt," he explains. "I just use their natural desire."
Marek's pride and joy is the golden eagle, a male named Bonnie. Because he's bigger and stronger than the falcons, Bonnie is assigned to rid the area of swans, storks, ducks and other large birds.
Bonnie and the falcons often work together in bird-scaring work shifts, which last between three and five hours, starting at the break of dawn and ending at dark. The birds are weaker and less effective if they work too long, Marek explains.
At the start of a typical shift, Marek or one of his three colleagues travels in a small truck to fields near the runways with three birds, a dog and a two-way radio. The dog works with the birds by flushing out flocks that try to hide in the tall grass or bushes. Once airborne, the flushed-out birds can be targeted by the falcons.
"The birds and the dog work together," Marek said. "They know what to do."
Indeed, if the dog takes a break, his winged partner will swoop down and peck him back to action.
Meanwhile, the man in charge of the birds communicates by radio with traffic controllers in the airport tower, ground crew workers and airline pilots. Everyone watches for dangerous flocks. If a pilot spots a flock, for example, he radios a location report so that a falcon can be dispatched right away.
Marek knows of airports in Spain and Britain that use birds of prey in similar biological scare programmes. But most airports, he said, use pyrotechnics or even recorded bird cries to frighten off flocks - methods he says that are cheaper but less effective.
Naturally, Marek is partial to his bird-scare programme. And the public, whether or not they fly through Prague, has shown a special fondness for these birds of prey.
Bonnie's popularity with the public was underscored in January after the eagle went hunting as usual but never returned. Marek asked radio stations to alert the public, asking that anyone seeing an eagle to call airport officials.
Over the next few days thousands of people called from as far as Germany and Slovakia to report what they thought were Bonnie sightings. Eventually, two reports from a nearby village led Marek to the eagle, and Bonnie came home.
Now when Marek perches Bonnie on a leather-protected arm, and the eagle gently nudges the man's hair with his beak, it's clear they have a special relationship.
Yet Bonnie and the falcons are not Marek's only feathered friends. In the field, while his birds prowl among the clouds, other birds often flutter near Marek and sometimes land at his feet in hopes he will protect them from the birds of prey. They are mistaken.
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