Early on a crisp morning, while most of London still sleeps, an elite fighting force is ridding the city of pests.
Buzz, a 2-year-old Harris hawk, is flying high above Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and other landmarks. He's on the lookout for pigeons.
Buzz and his handler, Roger Polley, rise before 4 a.m. three days a week to climb to the top of the Treasury building, where Buzz is set free. His circling presence is enough to scare off pigeons.
"It's like having a tiger in your front room. You're not going to hang around to see if it can catch you, and you are not going back in to see if it's still there," said Polley.
Officials in London say millions of pigeons are disease-ridden and have no respect for statues and historic buildings. The birds leave droppings that cost thousands of dollars to clean.
And so the city has turned to falconry, an ancient sport that involves the hunting of wild game using trained birds.
Polley's boss, David van Vynck, said he fell into the pest control business while displaying birds at a country fair about 10 years ago.
"A local baker saw us with the birds and asked us if we could scare away sparrows from its bakery. We were the only ones doing it at first," he said.
Several falconries are now competing for business in London. They're paid up to $65,000 a year to keep dozens of sites around the capital pigeon-free.
Some animal rights activists complain that the hawks often kill their prey rather than simply scare them away. But van Vynck said a predatory bird couldn't kill more than a bird a day. Instead, he said, the task is to "change the patterns of the pigeons who are creatures of habit. The Harris hawk is an excellent tool for removing pigeons from areas that we couldn't otherwise get to."
Richard Lewis, facilities manager for the Treasury building, said the government had enlisted the falconers because they wanted a humane solution.
"The alternatives are shooting them or poisoning them, neither of which are acceptable these days," said Lewis. Falcons are "the natural way of doing things," he said.
The van Vynck falconry has 20 Harris hawks and 20 other falcons used for traditional hunting and display shows. The hawks are taken to various sites around London, including train stations and parks.
For Polley, a former factory worker who became a trained hawker two years ago, his job -- even with the early hours -- is one of the best in the world.
"Look at this view," he said, gazing at the sun rising behind the Houses of Parliament. "Not everybody gets that for their office."
-- Jane Wardell, Associated Press