Montreal

The birdman of Bagotville helps keep Canada's CF-18 fighter jets in the air

The Royal Canadian Air Force's base in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region is on a migratory path for birds. Paul Jean, a retired military air-traffic controller, and his saker falcon are helping keep they away from the CF-18 fighter fleet.

Paul Jean was a military air-traffic controller for 20 years, he's also spending his retirement at the base

Paul Jean, a falconer at CFB Bagotville near Saguenay, and a saker falcon he uses to chase bird and other wildlife away from the air field. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

A pick-up truck trundles alongside a runway on the Canadian Forces base at Bagotville, in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region.

Behind the wheel, Paul Jean is scanning the surroundings intently.

In the nearly 20 years he worked as an air traffic controller at the base, his job was to make sure a squadron of CF-18s could fly safely.

Today, Jean is retired but he still spends his days eliminating hazards for the pilots and their aircraft.

The difference is instead of using a radar scope, his chief weapons are alive: fierce and efficient falcons.

Suddenly, Jean spots a flight of 20 or so birds wheeling across the sky at low altitude. It's all he needs to hit a button that activates speakers on the roof of the vehicle. The air fills with the cries of distressed crows.

The falconers at CFB Bagotville patrol the airport in a truck that has speakers on the roof to scare away birds. Failing that, there is a Plan B perched in the back and waiting for a chance to soar skyward. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

He turns the steering wheel violently left, then right, sketching out quick, tight circles on the tarmac. The idea is to scare the intruders off.

A few metres away, a dozen or so CF-18s are parked on an apron. Crews are making final preparations for that morning's flights.

The birds may be tiny, but they're big enough to rearrange the schedule and even keep the pilots out of the sky. Should one of them accidentally get sucked into a jet engine, the consequences could be severe. 

It's a chain reaction, says Jean, who allowed a reporter from Radio-Canada's Empreintes to accompany him for a day this fall. The engine will survive the bird strike, but the impact might create a small piece of metal débris, which will then create a larger one, and pretty soon the engine is breaking down. If it explodes, the multi-million dollar plane could easily fall out of the sky.

Paul's eyes turn back to the surrounding landscape, he spots a few sparrows prowling around. The crow sound effect isn't going to cut it. The time has come to bring out the creature that's jabbering in the back of the truck.

This not-so-quiet companion is a saker falcon, a majestic bird of prey. Its talons and piercing gaze make it a predator feared by fauna both winged and four-legged. 

Paul Jean, a falconer at CFB Bagotville, takes a saker falcon out of its perch in his pick-up truck. Falcons wear leather hoods to hide their eyes, it's also a way to keep them calm. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

When diving it can reach 300 km/h, the speed of an F1 car.

Jean clambers out of the truck, opens the rear door and unties the falcon. He then removes the bird's small leather hood, which covers its eyes and has a calming effect. A few seconds later, it spans its large wings and begins describing large circles in the piercing blue sky.

Meanwhile, Jean dons his falconer's equipment: a stiff leather glove that fits over his left hand.

He steps away from the truck and produces a lure out of one of his pockets. It looks like a bird tied to the end of a string. He spins it rapidly in the air to attract the falcon's interest, then emits a shrill whistle. 

The falcon soon returns and dives onto the lure. The falconer then substitutes the fake bird with real meat. They repeat the process several times, until the other lurking birds disappear.

They know all about the falcon. Its mere presence is usually enough to scare other species off for a good long while. This is his airport, and today's show of force merely reminds everyone.

Birds and other wildlife know to steer clear of a saker falcon, which can reach top speeds of 300 km/h and is known as a ruthless and efficient hunter. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

"Our birds are territorial. The others know, and the won't stay there. They'll go away, to them this is a dangerous predator," says Jean.

CFB Bagotville is smack in the middle of a migratory corridor. In autumn, snow geese and Canada geese find the long grassy verges next to the runway irresistible. About 200,000 of them have popped in since August, according to the base's unofficial count. 

A fighter jet taking off can prompt a mass flight, for pilots it's a nightmare.

And so falconers are on hand every day to chase them out of the local airspace.

The Department of National Defence's installation in the Saguenay is hard by the Baie des Ha! Ha! and the Laurentian wildlife reserve. It's also surrounded by farms. It's no coincidence that birds are attracted to it, either for rest or a spot of hunting.

Larger mammals also travel around the area, and occasionally wander onto a runway. Foxes, groundhogs and skunks are regularly sighted. To them, military fencing presents no significant barrier.

Two CF-18s on a taxiway at CFB Bagotville, with a flight of birds in the background. If the wildlife gets too close it can result in catastrophe for the animals, the planes and the pilots. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

Once, a moose showed up for a morning walk.

The falcon may not be big by moose standards, but it's very effective at chasing away larger animals as well.

Bagotville is one of only two Canadian bases to house CF-18 fighters. It also boasts another claim: it is the only base in Canada with a permanent falcon mews.

The tiny building is a stone's throw from the control tower. In the main room, there's a workspace and small refrigerator. Doors at each end lead to raptor habitats. One for the peregrine falcon, the other for the saker.

"The peregrine falcon climbs very high in the sky and attacks in flight. The saker falcon flies lower to hunt animals that are closer to the ground," said Jean.

The two species don't cohabitate, they share a visceral animosity to one another. 

A peregrine falcon perches at CFB Bagotville. The bird is considered the fastest animal on earth, and can reach speeds up to 390 km/h when diving on a target. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

"They only work together," laughs Jean.

Before each shift, this is where falconers like Jean prepare the birds for work. Each one is carefully weighed and measured, the numbers are written down in a register. The data will dictate how much food to give each bird.

"It's the method we have to determine whether to let them go in free flight, or whether we need to keep him tied down, feed him a little less to lower his weight and allow him to be able to fly back," said Jean.

If the bird is too heavy, it won't come back. "They have to be hungry," said Jean.

The one-time flight controller spent 23 years in the Canadian Forces before retiring. He's been dedicated to his other lifelong passion, birds, for about 10. His first attempt at hiring on as a falconer fell flat. The second time around, he got the job. He is one of three who currently work on the base.

Jean considers himself lucky to be able to indulge in his passion on a daily basis, six months a year. The people who do this job are few and far between. It's an art, he says, that is passed on from one generation of falconer to the next.

A saker falcon takes off from falconer Paul Jean's hand at CFB Bagotville. The birds are used to control wildlife in and around the airport and to prevent bird strikes, which can cause devastating damage and endanger pilots. (Vicky Boutin/Radio-Canada)

He holds his birds in the highest esteem. And his practiced ornithologist's eye also comes in handy for identifying interlopers.

"That's part of the job, really. We have to know which birds are which, why they're there and what attracts them to the base," he said. 

Those who do "avian hazard" duty, as it's known in military jargon, play an essential role. 

"They give us recommendations based on what's happening on the ground and we apply them, because they're our experts," says Capt. Alex Brault, Bagotville's air control officer. "It's a collaborative effort."

On this chilly November day, the raptors have successfully completed their mission. The people who fly the metal birds will be able to focus on their flight training without worry, the falcons have chased away would-be intruders before take-off.

Tomorrow, they will be back to mark their territory again.

based on a report from Radio-Canada's Vicky Boutin

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