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Photojournalism and Documentary Photography

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Falconry and bird strike: a millenary technique for airport security

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Birds never collide when they fly in a group. They can evaluate and change their trajectory even when they are flying in a limited space and at great speed. This is a mystery not yet fully revealed. From a human perspective, it is difficult to understand how it is possible that birds do not maintain the same skills when it comes to man-made objects, even of large size: the windows of a building, the lines of high voltage electricity grid, the wind turbines can cause numerous deaths. Men need a new approach to understand why it is so hard for birds to avoid colliding with these objects.

The problem of collision becomes serious for human beings when it occurs between birds and airplanes. This  phenomenon, called “bird strike”, only recently has been raised by the media. The damage caused by this impact can be considerably dangerous. Only one bird, especially of small size, it cannot be a huge problem for the aircraft, but a larger animal, like a seagull or a pigeon, can be. The force of impact depends on several factors: the weight of the animal, the difference of speed and direction. To test the effect of “bird strike” on the fuselage of the plane, manufacturers fire a bird carcass at 1000 km/h (since a plane has an average of travelling time of 800 km/h and a bird could reach 200 km/h). Adding the two forces is easy to see that a bird becomes a projectile, capable of causing considerable damage, as well as dangerous failures of the aircraft, and compromise the safety of those who are on board.

The solution to this problem comes from the Middle Ages and is falconry, one of those ancient techniques that perfectly fit also into places that are in the vanguard of technology, such as airports, protecting the environment (avoiding the use of poison, ultrasound or other mechanical systems). Actually, origins of falconry are to be traced further back in human history and date back to the ancient Egyptians. However, the period of major success of this practice, which was created primarily as hunting, is precisely the Middle Ages, during the reign of Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 to 1250. He wrote in the 1240s a treatise still used by those who approach this practice: “De arte venandi cum avibus” (“The Art of Hunting with Birds”), about systems of breeding, training and use of birds of prey.

The training of these animals is long and methodical, it requires great patience and never ends, it continues every day. The hawks are not social animals, and they don’t understand the value of punishment, then the falconer has to work backwards, providing them with food as a reward. Like all birds of prey (the word raptor comes from the Latin “rapax”, which means robbery), the falcons fly and hunt only for food needs and, like all predators, must conserve their energy, and then only fly for food. Easier for them to find their prey, the better. They work well  only when their body and their weight are perfect, like real athletes. Being “opportunistic” in nature, once they understood that it is easier to eat according to the falconer, rather than escape and obtain food for themselves, here is that you create that bond that will last throughout their lives. A strange relationship, something that is created since the ancient Egyptians. The nice thing is that Italy is still handed down from master to master. Usually they eat small chicks, already dead and frozen, and once a week a rat or a quail, because they have a different protein content. Since they eat their prey whole, including legs, bones and beaks, if they do not digest properly, the day after the regurgitate.

Even the equipment used by the falconer comes from the time of Frederick II and includes a glove to protect the arm of the falconer, a lure and a cap worn by the falcons. The cap serves as the input, it is also useful to calm the animals. You put the cap on when the bird is going to work. Without the cap, the hawk is working. At the end the falconer covers the bird to make it understand that it has finished its job and can therefore be moved to the aviary. The lure is made of leather and shaped like a horseshoe. It is used by a falconer as artificial prey during the flight. The falcon make fake attacks on the lure, and this scare every birds that are close to the runway or landing. The only element “modern” is a radar antenna, which is mounted on the foot of the hawk, and serves to identify the animal if it were removed.

Hawks fly more than once a day, every 2 hours, for their physical well-being and to remove those birds who approach to the airport. Since the runaway of an airport will never be completely clean, the falconer must always monitor the situation. If there are not too many birds the falconer doesn’t need to intervene, but if any animal or bird is approaching the runway, he will be ready to throw the hawk. For other birds, in fact, a hawk swooping is a hawk is hunting: this is enough to scare them away. Airports are an ideal habitat for various animals, since there are no humans or other predators, it is easy to find food and shelter, and also because it is a wide open space. With falcons it is possible to clean the runaway in few minutes. For instance, when seagulls see a bird of prey in action they begin to rise. Hawks fly from the bottom, because the aim is precisely to bring the prey to rise, higher than the angle of descent or off of the aircraft, which is around 300 feet, about 100 meters high. If the intimidation flight is constant, other birds or animals will be at a safe distance. The purpose of the falconer is just that: monitoring everything is on the hillside.

Four airports in Italy are using expert falconers: in Bari, Turin, Venice and Trieste. Birds of prey used for this purpose are divided between hawks and falcons that fly high (Peregrine Falcon, Gyrfalcon, Lanner Falcon, Common Kestrel, Saker Falcon), and those defined by low-flying (Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Common Buzzard). It is important to associate each animal with its natural enemy. For the birds (such as seagulls, pigeons, magpies, starlings, other birds of prey, or animals in transit as lapwings, storks, flamingos) are used hawks, for foxes the eagle. Each prey, in nature has its own predator. The sacred, as well as Harris’ hawks are ideal for both strength and resistance to disease. Birds of prey are not captured in the wild, but they are all meticulously reproduced in captivity. To avoid the risk of causing serious harm to the environment, there is rather strict legislation in this regard. All the birds used are regularly purchased in accordance with the provisions of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Even if they could mate, by the third year onwards, this does not happen normally, being regarded as working animals.

There are a lot of falconers, but the true falconers are few. Their job is to try to intervene in a non-bloody way, trying not to hurt either animal to be removed or the hawk. The bird of prey simulates what it does in nature. The prey, however, seeing a predator in action, run away. It is more than sufficient and there is no need to have the victim to get the result. It is certainly a job that requires passion, when you hear a falconer describing what falconry is, you understand immediately how much they love what they do. To the animal activists that have doubts about this ancient practice, it must be said that, even it may seem paradoxical, falconers are animal lovers. For a falconer is unthinkable to kill another animal and the beauty of this kind of technique is that is done in full respect of nature.

Paola Sarappa

(Published in July 2011 on the Scientific Italian Magazine “Newton”:

Written by Paola Sarappa

10/06/2011 at 1:45 am

Abruzzo after the earthquake: the line between resignation and reconstruction

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What usually happens after a catastrophe – no matter how big it is – is that when the news become old – and this happens really quickly – and the media stop talking about it, the perception of the people is like that everything almost never happened or just the problem doesn’t exist anymore. Like what happened in the Gulf of Mexico, on the 20th of April 2010, with the explosion of the “Deepwater Horizon” oil platform, or what happened to Japan, on the 11th of March 2011, struck three times by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake (the seventh biggest of all time), a tsunami and at the end by a nuclear disaster after an explosion at a power plant.

Two years have passed since a terrible earthquake (5,8 Richter scale) occurred in Abruzzo. What I found, going there, is destruction. In the earthquake, 308 people died, 1,500 were injured and around 65,000 became homeless. At 3:32 am the earth trembled, destroying the cultural and historical heritage of the region, damaging between 3,000 and 11,000 buildings in the medieval city of L’Aquila, along with the buildings of the surrounding villages, such as Onna, Villa Sant’Angelo and San Pio delle Camere.

The 6th of April was the 2nd anniversary and everything remained the same. Actually, nobody even knows how long things will remains like this, probably forever. The government doesn’t have the money to demolish the damaged houses and probably is more busy, dealing with other issue. What comes out talking to the locals is not only the problem of the physical destruction of the houses. The fracture, created by the quake (which lasted 38 seconds), was created within the same community that inhabits this lands. The slow process of depopulation of these small urban realities, started before the catastrophe, has undergone on a rapid growth and this region is witnessing the departure, over the months, of the inhabitants of these houses. There are no more young people, only elderly, that obviously were born and raised here and they still wanna live here.

However, totally in contrast with this attitude of passive acceptance and resignation to the fate, I found an example of strength and determination. In this context born the village called EVA (Self build eco-village). It refers to a small cluster of houses, made by private individuals by donations and in a complete ecological way. As you read on the website dedicated to the project: “Instead of waiting, we decided to continue to live in our land and our country, and rebuild together for a common future. With the awareness that inhabit a place do not only coincide with being satisfied of any kind of house”. (

The idea, in addition to this need, is also an attempt to repopulate the town of Pescomaggiore, almost totally uninhabited, and to enable more families to remains living in their own lands. There are several questions that this enterprise is bringing to light, far more profound than it may seem on the surface. By the need to think how to rebuilt and return to repopulate the abandoned spaces, the meaning and the issues of living together in a community emerge.

The people who designed the village were forced to learn how to do things that probably they had never thought of doing before. None of them has ever experienced how to build a house, but when for reasons unforeseen – and what is more unpredictable than an earthquake – you get to lose everything (this includes the house, the objects accumulated over a lifetime and unfortunately relatives and people close to you) there are not many choices: you can resign yourself to your destiny, waiting to be helped and accepting any kind of offer, or you can start a new process of reconstruction. Thinking how and where you want to live the rest of life and creating your own future by yourself.

Paola Sarappa

Written by Paola Sarappa

07/06/2011 at 11:38 am

5 Picture Story – A problem called Berlusconi

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One of the more important principle that a journalist should always try to respect is objectivity. Since I started working as journalist I’ve always done my best to be neutral, trying to leave comments and opinions to the reader. Quite easy to say and far less easy to carry out.

The desire to direct the mind of the reader toward your own thought is often overwhelming, especially if you are writing on a topic you really care about, but often also if you have all the goodwill to be nonpartisanship this happens unconsciously.

The beauty to have a blog is that none of this matters. You can write about your real thought, without the fear to be judged as factious. So in this case, I’m not afraid of deploying myself with that part of Italy who never liked his prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and will never do.

For this assignment I attended the protest against Berlusconi, which took place the 13th of February at Richmond Terrace, in front of Downing Street, in the centre of London. In the same day, in over 200 cities in Italy the people demonstrated against Berlusconi. This small picture story is my contribution, as an Italian offsite, to the protest.

Paola Sarappa

Written by Paola Sarappa

14/03/2011 at 8:43 pm

This is my letter to the world. Judge tenderly of me!

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Back in London, again. This time to start this new great adventure: a Master in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication. A dream for me. I wanted to attend this course so much and now that it has begun I’m happy, of course, but scared at the same time.

I do not think it is a simple photography course. For me it is like putting into play what I’ve learned through years of study and sacrifices. It’s like the day of reckoning, whether or not this will be my way in the future. However I’m sure that this course will give me the opportunity to deal with talented photographers and this will allow me to grow faster anyhow.

The idea of photojournalism came out of the need to combine my two greatest passions: photography and journalism. Actually photography came slowly over the years. My real background is painting and history of art (I have a degree in Academy of Fine Art). Then I moved to photography, because I thought it was a more contemporary and faster means of communication, potentially accessible to all, anywhere in the world.

After two years, spent to study and working as photographer, I attended a short course of journalism. At the beginning it was just a game. I never thought that this could have been a job, ever. I never thought I could be able to write anything more than a letter or an email to a friend. Surprisingly this passion increased more and more and now I’m the editor in chief of a newspaper. I work everyday, since more than one year now, and I just cannot stop.

For all this reason I am where I am now. I hope this year will be a great opportunity for me to get many incentives to improve, always, and never stop on what I achieved, but always continue to seek and pursue. I still don’t know what exactly but…we’ll see!

Paola Sarappa

Written by Paola Sarappa

18/01/2011 at 10:43 pm

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