Atlético de Madrid has had its problems over recent years, at one point facing receivership and being relegated to the second division. But if there is one thing that its players and fans cannot complain about, it is having to suffer the indignity of pigeon droppings.
Located in the capital's southwest, the soccer club's Vicente Calderón stadium seems to sit on a route taken by migrating birds, and for many years offered an ideal stopping-off route for many species, notably pigeons, which along with seagulls have a phenomenal capacity for producing excrement that is not only unsightly, but also highly corrosive.
But any eagle-eyed colchonero, as Atlético fans are known, will have noticed over the last decade that the Calderón is now a pigeon-free zone, and they can thank Jorge Castaño for this. The 40-year-old Madrileño is one of the country's leading falconers. His team of specially trained hawks patrol the Calderón regularly, and make it clear that pigeons, or as he prefers to call them, "flying rats," are not welcome.
Castaño trained at the Hamburg Falcon Center, Europe's leading institution for falconry. After spending time working in the United Arab Emirates for a sheikh—"for the Arabs, falcons are gods"—he returned to Spain and heard about Atlético's problem. He contacted Emilio Gutiérrez, the team's marketing manager, who arranged a meeting with CEO Ángel Gil Marín.
"Controlling problematic birds, as well as vermin such as rats through the use of hawks and other birds of prey has become an important and highly professional business, and we work in all sorts of places, from soccer stadiums to airports, where flocks of birds can be very dangerous. Our approach is to use nature to solve a problem of nature. The trick is to establish a routine, to arrive at the same time with the birds every day. The pigeons soon learn," he says ominously.
"I don't know what we would have done without Jorge and his hawks," says Juan Carlos Cánovas, Atlético's chief groundsman. He explains that the pitch must be kept in top condition, and that means keeping greedy pigeons away. "A decade ago we put down 500 kilos of grass seed. What happened? The pigeons descended en masse for a free feed."
The problems didn't stop there. Once they had eaten all the bird seed, they left behind kilos of droppings, much of it containing larvae, which then hatched and ruined the turf, he says. Before Jorge and his team of hawks took over, the Calderón kept a vast army of cats, but they were no match for the crafty pigeons.