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Taking flight

26 October 2022 Written by Celia Purdey

Look to the skies above Flemington during Cup Week, and you may spot an interesting sight. Majestic peregrine falcons and some of their other feathered friends, soaring above the track, keeping an eye on things from above and deterring flocks of seagulls from creating danger for participants down below.

The sight of a cloud of white seagulls flocking across the track at Flemington is not uncommon, especially during Cup Week when they are attracted by the crowds of people who bring with them the greatest of temptations – food. These slow-moving and large flocks of birds can be dangerous to the jockeys and horses as they hurtle down the straight towards the winning post, interfering with the race and causing accidents, as has happened at other tracks in the past.

With safety paramount, every effort is made to ensure horses and jockeys are not in danger during a race. When Flemington was deliberating over the best method to keep the gulls at bay about 10 years ago, Terry Freeman (Flemington’s recently retired head gardener), came across the innovative work of Graeme Coles of Full Flight Birds of Prey and their bird control at the Australian Open. Coles and his staff were called upon to offer the same solutions at Flemington.

“We train birds or raptors such as peregrine falcons in the same style of training that was used thousands of years ago,” said Coles. “At first it was a bit of trial and error as it hadn’t been done at the races before, but now we know what works. We usually always use falcons, but we have also used owls and eagles.”

At the forefront of an Australian-first research program into birds of prey being used for bird control in 2015, Graeme and his team employ incredible skills to train these raptor birds that include wedge-tailed eagles, peregrine falcons and barking owls.

They are let loose over the track prior to each race during Cup Week (and are sometimes used during the autumn), with the aim of scaring the seagulls away. Although they are hunting birds, they are not trained to attack the seagulls – simply to create an atmosphere of fear. A seagull or other bird will be naturally fearful of a bird of prey such as these, and will flee the area.

“The falcons are used in a non-lethal capacity. They are trained with a lure method to return to us for food. Because they are predators, they can’t be trained with love and attention, so they are attracted by pouches of food that are worn on our gloved arms.”

Eagles are slightly different. “Eagles are intelligent and pair up for life, so they may form a small bond with their trainer but essentially are also looking for food.”

Food is an important factor in keeping the birds focused on the job at hand and not shelf hunting. The falcons especially need constant monitoring so they remain non-lethal to the seagulls. “We keep their weight at a good level that ensures they are not hungry, but that they are hunting the lure rather than the seagulls,” said Coles.

The birds also have bells attached to them, as is the tradition, so that Cole and his team can hear them. “It is a beautiful tone that you can hear from about one kilometre away. Well, I can. I have a finely tuned ear!”

As well as making certain that the seagulls are safe, all factors are taken into account to also ensure the safety of the raptor pack itself. Weather and temperature are monitored to ensure there is no danger to the birds, and obstacles such as electricity lines are assessed. An eye is also kept out for other wild birds of prey that may happen to be in the area also. “The large TV screens on the Flemington straight had to be assessed, and all the glass in the grandstand windows were thought through. The birds are used to people and crowds, but we do also take the large crowds into account.”

The birds are often released at the top end of the straight, so helicopters and other air activity is monitored. “We haven’t had any real problems with our birds returning to us, though one eagle a few years ago did get spooked by a helicopter, and he ended up at the Melbourne Zoo. Thankfully, because of the GPS equipment they have attached to them we were able to track him down and get him back.”

Although strictly handled by their professional handlers, the birds are so highly trained that they will also not be a risk to any other animal or human. Part of Full Flight’s services also include using the birds for school education, events such as weddings, and hiring them out for film and television. “The birds are handled all the time. One of our eagles is 23 years old now and has been on the gloves of around 100,000 people. It is moreso the keepers who might get a few scratches here and there.”

Like all businesses, Full Flight has been affected by COVID-19 with the cancellation of events, though they have managed to continue using the birds for some pest control. Coles decided to look at the quiet time as an opportunity, closing down for winter and giving the birds a well-earned rest. “We were really busy last year, so it is actually a good time to concentrate on building some new aviaries and breeding some new birds.”

With extraordinary efforts such as these taken to ensure the welfare of jockeys and horses, it seems that the sky’s the limit for what the VRC will do to ensure that Australia’s greatest week in racing is safe from unexpected guests.

Graeme Coles of Full Flight Birds of Prey with one of their falcons. (Jason Sammon/News Limited)

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