Harnessed by chains and fitted with tracker devices beneath tails. Feathered in various shades of brown apart from patches of white down which feather up as they reach maturity. Legs and feet pale yellow, curved beaks with black tips. They entered a high security prison at ease with themselves and the feast of incarcerated eyes focused upon them.
Immortalised by poets such as Yeats, Graves and Ted Hughes, these hawks were not the free flying hunters of Hughes’ beloved Yorkshire Moors. These were Harris Hawks, originally found in Texas, Mexico and much of Central America. Their diet consists of small creatures including birds, lizards, mammals and large insects. But because it will hunt in groups, the Harris Hawk can also take down larger prey, such as jackrabbits. Eight month old brothers Zeus and Apollo though, are housed in six foot square cages in a category A prison that holds over 700 inmates, including some of the country’s most violent, dangerous and challenging men. Frozen one day old cockerel chicks are their meals, bought by the box load.
The men watched in awe as the birds came into the classroom. They’d seen them out flying in the yards, wondered why they didn’t fly free whenever they were let off the leash and given the opportunity. God knows they’d dreamed of it often enough themselves. And included in the classroom were two men who would never get their freedom back until the day they died.
Zeus, named after the supreme God of all other Greek Gods, was by far the most aggressive. His trainer admitted he‘d clawed quite a few people. They were not pets, were completely wild when bought from a falconry dealer, wouldn’t feed while the trainers were present, would lie on their backs and play dead instead. And they certainly wouldn’t allow the trainers to pick them up. But food changes all that, just like the training of any other wild animal or bird. Apollo, named after the God of prophesy, music and healing, was the calmer and smaller brother. But standing there, chained to leather glove, they emitted a power and alertness that demanded respect. And fascinated staff and students who peered in from outside classroom windows were eyeballed until they turned away and left.
When a snack was produced Zeus became more animated, instinctively arching his wings to protect his prey from others whilst aggressively ripping the chick to shreds and devouring it within seconds. Apollo was more laid back, savoured it a little more. The trainers watched fascinated faces and explained female hawks were twice as big as males.
Acquired to disperse the growing menace of pigeons from prison grounds, the idea is that they keep disturbing the pigeons, forcing them to move to where they feel less threatened. Being well fed, Zeus and Apollo don’t kill the pigeons. They simply fly free and unsettle them. However, the pigeons have been well established for years and are fed by prisoners who appreciate visitors landing on their barred windowsills. And so the aim is proving to be more of a challenge than initially hoped for. By simply feeding Zeus and Apollo less, the trainers could ensure pigeons were killed and that would certainly prove effective in removing them. But pigeons are a significant health risk, to humans and hawks. They eat anything, breed extensively, carry a number of diseases and their faeces, which cover the chapel roof and have to be removed regularly, are highly toxic. When told several pigeons had been attacked by hawks the trainers stated these were done by hungry sparrow hawks from a nearby nature reserve. Zeus and Apollo could kill and eat a pigeon if they so wished – after all they do fly free – but the repercussions could be problematic in a couple of ways. The worst case scenario would be poisoning. Another consequence could be them realising they don’t need their trainers after all and deciding to return to their wild roots. And life for them is easy when food is provided without effort. Plus, even the ‘wilderness’ in North East England can be hostile for birds of prey. The gulls and crows which fly over concrete walls and razor wire fences don’t take kindly to their appearance and often dive-bomb them.
What was surprising was that these birds can be bought without a licence, though the Falconry UK website, through which they must be registered, advises caution. They say there is a prolific amount of Harris Hawks up for sale, unwanted, spoilt and miserable because their owners did not research their needs before buying and subsequently couldn’t look after them. Zeus and Apollo meanwhile, picked remains off their trainers’ gloves, then looked outside at the growing number of pigeons that had started to settle on the roof of E Wing.