“We all have a story to tell about birds”. That’s the mantra of this column but I was determined to return from a week spent at the Australian Open Tennis Championships without one.
A wedge-tailed eagle called Zorro changed all that.
For once, I left my binoculars behind and was determined to concentrate on tennis. What’s more, I was among non-birding tennis-tragic friends and was well aware they found my talk of birds a little tiresome at times, especially at a sporting event, or even in the pub. So on the plane to Melbourne, I felt it unwise to mention that my last trip there had been spent at the Werribee sewage farm to the west of the city – nowadays euphemistically called a “water treatment plant – in a fruitless search for orange-bellied parrots on their wintering grounds.
I might be going “cold turkey” in my bird addiction, but my friends were talking birds within minutes of entering the Melbourne tennis complex.
The Australian newspaper had carried a story about a wedge-tailed eagle being used at this year’s tennis championships to scare off problem silver gulls, as it had been used during the Australian footy grand final in September last year. And there was a picture, no less, of Swiss star Roger Federer posing, if a little nervously, with Zorro the eagle on his arm.
My friends were interested to hear about the eagle, its place in the Australian ecology and its place at MelbournePark in the service of man. It made a change, they said, from eagles being persecuted on farms for the supposed threat they posed to livestock.
Two eagles had actually been recruited to patrol the MCG and tennis park during major sporting events. Along with Zorro there’s a female called Matilda, the eagles being loaned by the Full Flight Birds of Prey Centre, a wildlife attraction on the outskirts of Melbourne.
The eagle patrol was first tried at the MCG when silver gulls became an increasing problem there, both on and off the field. The gulls were spraying people on the terraces with bird poo.
It was not just the poo problem at the Rod Laver area and other courts at MelbournePark. The gulls were actually distracting players, causing a brief halt to play at one point during a crucial game between Lleyton Hewitt and Novak Djokovic two years ago.
The tennis authorities report that the eagles have certainly made a difference this year, although there was one blip during the eventual champion Stan Wawrinka’s semi-final against Tomas Berdych. It didn’t affect the actual match but Brad Gilbert, the former world No 4, was providing special comments from courtside for ESPN when he was targeted by a gull. “I don’t know if this is good luck, but I just got bombed on,” Gilbert said on air.
In recent years the organisers of the Wimbledon grand slam in Britain have employed a bird of prey to ward off pigeons, which are a bigger problem there than seagulls.
Instead of using Britain’s native golden eagle, however, the organisers have recruited a Harris hawk from the United States.
When I mentioned this to my friends on day two, they quickly turned the conversation back to tennis.
“Too much information,” one of my friends said impatiently, making for the beer tent and one the outside courts.