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I am fascinated by the boundless trust of raptors towards humans // Humans of NATO Days

05.03.2023, 18:04

At the NATO Days in Ostrava, you can regularly see K-9 or hippology displays. A service dog or horse is not unusual, but did you know that even birds of prey have their place in the military? First Lieutenant Josef Hromádko from the Military Medical Agency in Hradec Králové, who explained to us the importance of raptors in the army, is a falconer and carries out expert supervision of the biological protection of the airports of the Army of the Czech Republic.

Falconry is not exactly a common profession these days. How did you start with it?
I graduated from the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague, majoring in Operation and Game Management, and that led me to hunting. Due to the fact that I have been serving in the army since the age of fourteen, I have not had much time for hobbies. However, with the time passing and a change in service classification, more time was found and I began to do what I always wanted to do.

I then looked for another path from hunting, because I had enough of shooting at work, for me it was about the love of nature. That's why I chose falconry as part of gamekeeping, which seems to me to be a different way of hunting and at the same time living in nature. When hunting with a predator, one will also see things that they can't get to otherwise.


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You said you've been in the army since you were fourteen. What did you mean? That's a very early career start.
That's when I entered the military secondary school. At that time, it was still the Czechoslovak Republic, so I studied in Nitra and after the partition I completed my last year in Vyškov. Then I went on to military college, which I did not finish. I didn't want to be an officer, but I decided to serve as a junior commander. In this way, I went through several units, and eventually I became an officer after completing the distance learning program at the Czech University of Life Sciences, anyway.

Then I learned that falconers also work in the army. Through a superior, I got to the Military Medical Agency, where my job is now to manage and organize biological protection from a professional point of view. Biological protection belongs professionally to the veterinary service of the Czech Republic, and the department that leads it is in Hradec Králové. The guys who are here at the NATO Days are not under my personal responsibility, they are members of the airports, I only guide and manage them professionally.

foto: Jiří Sejkorafoto: Jiří Sejkorafoto: Jiří Sejkora

This brings us directly to the raptors. What are they used for? What is included in the job description of a falconer?
Predators are used for biological protection, that is, they are generally used to protect vineyards, in cities against overpopulation of pigeons and the like. In the army, it is then used to protect airports. This means that we try to keep birds and other animals away from airports and their surroundings. For an aircraft, any collision with an animal means a high risk. Even small birds the size of sparrows are very dangerous, because a hit by the bird's body can knock out the sensors on the plane, which then show wrong values or not show them at all.

If the pitot tube is clogged, the pilot does not know what the plane's real speed is. Or after the bird's body hits the inclinometer, the pilot will see the wrong position of the plane relative to the ground. It's just universally dangerous.

Larger birds can also cause the destruction of the engine, damage to the leading edges, and these are already items worth hundreds of thousands or millions crowns, regardless of the threat to the aircraft itself. You will surely remember, for example, the landing on the Hudson, where the plane sat on the river because of the geese. But there were also more serious accidents caused by collisions with birds.

photo: Jiří Sejkoraphoto: Jiří Sejkoraphoto: Jiří Sejkora

What raptors do you use for these activities?
It depends on the target prey. As falconers, we distinguish between low-flying and high-flying raptors. Low-flying raptors are, for example, hawks and are usually used on hares and on prey that is more manoeuvrable and hides in the undergrowth. High-flying birds include falcons, which are used for faster prey in open spaces. But it is not always the rule.

How long does it take to train raptors? 
When a falconer gets along well with a raptor, the training time for falcons is at least two to three weeks. For falcons, the training takes longer, about five to six weeks until the first catch. But this does not mean that after this time the raptor is perfectly trained, it just catches something for the first time, flies freely and returns to the falconer.

Then we teach him to hunt better and better. Predators are intelligent, they remember mistakes and think about how to do it better. This is also related to the suppression of vices, when, for example, they deliberately choose weaker and lighter prey than they could and the like. A predator's goal is to feed itself, not to please us, but they are fighters and try to satisfy themselves physically.

What do you enjoy most about working with raptors? 
During this work, a person gets very close to nature. He sees events that he would not see in ordinary life, because few people will see a predator catch its prey up close.

I am also fascinated by the boundless trust of an undomesticated animal towards man. If I treat the raptor well and it is happy with me, it cooperates. I do not consider myself the owner, but rather the hunting partner of my raptor. One of the main differences between training a raptor and, for example, a dog, is that you catch up with the dog on the ground. But if I betray the raptor and it doesn't pay to come back to me, it will fly away and I won't see it again. Training a raptor is a great school of care and self-control, and is carried out only by the use of positive motivation. 
 

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