The 5 Best Birds For Killing Drones, According to Experts
A Natural History Museum curator and wildlife biology Ph.D walk us through picking out drone-fighting raptors.
On Monday, we learned that the Dutch police are training eagles to attack illegal drones. Awesome. We love birds of prey. The animal kingdom contains a dizzying number of species, but when it comes to fetching a flying object out of the sky, raptors are the only logical choice. Bats are too hard to train, and too small to take out a drone (unless you can convince a colony of them to kamikaze into it, but we’re running low on bats as it is). Parrots are smart enough, but they don’t have that killer instinct. Big cats could do it, but once the drone is more than 20 feet off the ground, cats can’t do anything but pace fecklessly.
Birds of prey have the instincts. And talons. And people have been training them to hunt for thousands of years. So if we wanted to do it, which members of the raptor flock would be be?
To find out, we sought out the opinions of two veteran raptor researchers: Thomas Erdman, curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History, and David Bird, Ph.D, emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University. Each has four-plus decades of experience working with birds of prey; Dr. Bird also has nearly a decade’s experience working with drones. (Note: That’s his real name. Seriously.) Between the two men, we were able to put together a list of five of the most badass birds stalking the North American continent that’d easily be trained to take down drones.
As it turns out, raptors are already more than happy to take on drones—or other flying mechanical objects—all by themselves. Both researchers say they’ve had experiences where birds of prey have attacked UAVs or aircraft they’ve been using to try and study the animals, and YouTube is filled with clips of hawks, ospreys and eagles going after buzzy quadcopters and the like.
“They respond to things up in the air,” Erdman says. “If you [fly a drone] in their territory, you will probably get a response.”
That said, before we dive in: Both Bird and Erdman came down strongly against the idea of actually using raptors to fight drones, as the spinning propellers would likely inflict severe injuries on the animals.
“It’s a recipe for disaster for the birds,” Dr. Bird says. “It’s just inevitable that birds are gonna have their legs hacked up by this.”
But, hey, hyperbole!
Both experts cited the golden eagle as the toughest bird on the North American block, with talons that can exert 450 psi of grip. Dr. Bird says a friend nearly lost his arm after it was squeezed by a golden eagle. And both men said golden eagles have been trained to take down game as large as deer and wolves. “I doubt it takes that much to take a drone down,” Erdman says.
America’s national icon, as it turns out, is kind of lame next to the golden eagle. It’s much happier to scavenge than its gilded cousin, and has no problem hanging out in trash piles. But it’s still enormous, and strong—and more than capable of taking down a drone. “One could easily train a bald eagle to do the same thing” as a golden, says Dr. Bird.
The largest member of the falcon family, the gyrfalcon has wings that can span more than five feet from tip to tip. But does this mean drone pilots will have a good chance of seeing this falcon before it attacks? Not likely. “They [perform] more of a diving attack,” says Dr. Bird.
If you’ve heard of the peregrine falcon, it’s probably because it’s so damned fast. To make a kill, peregrines swoop down on other birds in a steep dive called a stoop. Back in 2005, a peregrine was clocked at 242 mph. These birds fly so fast that they have to target their prey’s wings—colliding body-on-body at that speed would obliterate both birds.
While perhaps not as dramatic or alluring as the other raptors on this list, the red-tailed hawk has one big thing going for it: ubiquity. Not only is it extremely common, but red-tails are easy to train (well, for a winged killing machine), quite social, and capable of learning new hunting techniques to take on challenging prey. It’s also an accomplished voice actor; that scream you always hear when eagles fly by in movies? That’s actually the cry of red-tailed hawk.