Unforced Terrors

by: Peter Bodo | June 07, 2013

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AP Photo

PARIS—The most impressive athletes on the grounds of Roland Garros while away most of the day on a sunlit patch of grass, in the nook at the corner of a tournament office building, their work finished most days by 8:30 a.m.

The three Harris Hawks and three Peregrine Falcons (two of them Goshawk hybrids) cling to portable aluminum perches, secured to them by a short leash attached to one leg of each bird. Occasionally, one of the hawks will exercise its wings, tugging at its leash as if it could carry it off. These birds of prey want to get at those pigeons about as enthusiastically as Serena Williams likes to get at a Sara Errani second serve.

The magnificent predators belong to Ludwig Verschatse of the Fauconnerie Merlyn, a family run falconry (Ludwig is assisted by his wife and two grown sons) in nearby Belgium. He was recruited to help the French Tennis Federation control the pigeons that make their home in and around Roland Garros. Wimbledon has a similar program, but the All-England Club retains its falconer as an employee. Ludwig just hires out his services for the month here, then moves on to the next job, which could be a seaside resort plagued by seagulls or a grain farm overwhelmed by crows.

That helps explain why Ludwig, a bearish, grizzled, 50-something with twinkling blue eyes and “country” written all over him was wearing a rumpled gray t-shirt and work boots, not a LaCoste polo and khakis, when we spoke under a shade tree at his temporary rookery. Ludwig’s love for his profession, and birds, was obvious as he identified by name and made an observation about each of his five birds. “That Harris Hawk is Chuck,” he told me. “For Chuck Norris. He is a good hunter, you know? ‘You don’t go looking for Chuck. . . he finds you.’ You remember that line from the movie?”

I confessed that I did not. But that fierce, down-turned beak of Chuck’s, and the steady, dispassionate gaze the bird appeared to level at me suggested that Chuck had no trouble at all living up to the obligations of his name.

Starting at first light each morning, the falconer stations himself on relatively high ground (high up in the cheap seats of court Philippe Chatrier, or in Suzanne Lenglen; he moves about) and flies the three hawks (Chuck, Tara, and Xena) in a regular rotation. The birds work on empty stomachs, because that’s still the best motivation for them to fly back to the falconer’s gloved hand (Don’t mistake these critters for dogs that return to you in the field simply joy they derive from licking your face).

Unlike the high-flying Peregrines, which remain airborne until they make a kill, the Harris hawks search for prey by flying from point-to-point. For that reason, they present some danger to the public, and must finish their work when the gates open to paying customers. Besides, happy urban tournament goers may not like the idea of their spoiled 12-year olds witnessing what a successful hawk does to its prey.

“When we first arrived (in 2012), they had a big problem with pigeons here,” Ludwig explained. “They had about one hundred and ten pigeons, which is far too much for a site like this. This year, there were about half that number. The birds performed well last year, so and we were invited back.”

But don’t fret too much, animal sentimentalists. The hawks kill few pigeons (about a dozen thus far this year). Mostly, they scare the living daylights of them, convincing them to retire into the adjacent Bois de Boulogne for the daylight hours.

“We create a cordon of insecurity,” Ludwig explained. “The pigeons realize this is not healthy territory for them. But late in the afternoon, we noticed, about ten or twelve pigeons usually return. These are the ‘rebels.’ They don’t scare as easily as the others.”

Some of those hard cases are Ramier pigeons (known in English as the Common Wood Pigeon), which are larger than the typical city pigeons with which they mix and are officially considered game birds. It makes no difference to the birds of prey; when a Peregrine Falcon hits one in mid-flight, it explodes in the same signature burst of feathers as a sparrow.

Ludwig controls those insurgents with his falcons.  If the pigeons start to act up, he goes over to the Bois (park) and sets up in a field, so the high-flying Peregrines can see him and the lure he carries to coax them back. The Peregrines like to fly at about 250 feet, but he can control how high they fly by moving in or out of their view. When he’s obscured, the birds climb higher because they like to keep an eye on him. Few spectators notice the falcons, but during quiet moments you can sometimes hear the small bells they wear tinkling, high overhead.

The makeshift rookery is set up alongside a sort of secret path at one edge of the grounds, where a narrow dirt track under the trees leads all the way to the far end of the grounds. It’s off-limits to spectators, but players and other credentialed persons are allowed to use it. A number of pros, including David Ferrer, walked by while I chatted with Ludwig. They all seemed utterly indifferent to the magnificent creatures and the man to whom they are bonded, but perhaps they were just accustomed to them. I’m still tempted to channel T.S. Eliot:

“On the gravel walk, the players come and go,

Speaking of Tommy Robredo. . .

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