BREA, Calif. (AP) — As trucks disgorged garbage and bulldozers pushed the trash into neat rows, Daniel Hedin stood in the middle of the dump and scanned the gray sky for dirty birds. When a small flock of seagulls drifted in, he looked at the falcon perched on his wrist.
"You ready, baby girl? Hup! Hup!" he said, and blew a whistle.
Zoe exploded into the air, swooping low before rising into a stiff wind to scatter the nervous gulls. Mission accomplished. She returned to Hedin's gloved hand for a reward of raw pigeon meat.
"The ground and the sky can be covered in gulls," Hedin said, stroking Zoe's breast feathers. "For these people operating heavy machines, it's like operating in a blizzard."
The Olinda Alpha landfill has declared war on the nuisance birds, but rather than using air cannons or high-tech scarecrows, it's fighting fliers with fliers. The dump on a plateau high above suburban Orange County is part of an explosion in falconry for profit in recent years, with one-time hobbyists launching their raptors into the skies above vineyards, farms, landfills, shopping complexes and golf courses nationwide.
The number of professional falconers nationwide is tiny, but recent changes in federal guidelines have nevertheless created a niche industry that's growing rapidly and changing the dynamics of a sport that dates back millennia. Since 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has granted 99 special permits to use captive-bred birds of prey for "bird abatement" to chase away avian pests such as starlings, grackles and seagulls.
Companies from California to Texas promise a no-kill, natural solution to cities bedeviled by bird droppings, wineries plagued by grape-snatchers and landfills harassed by gulls that can carry rotten bits of refuse miles from the dump before dropping them in suburban yards.
"It's exploding. I've had to turn away a lot of work, and it's only because I have so many people in line," said falconer Jeff Cattoor, who started BlackJack Bird Abatement in Ft. Worth, Texas, and has seen his business double each year.
He advertises an approach that allows businesses to clean up their properties without using poison. "The most important thing we've accomplished here is giving people an option to do something that isn't a 'scorched earth' approach," he said.
As many as 200 falconers are now in the business nationwide, said Hedin, a contractor who flies his falcons and hawks at the Brea landfill and at a vineyard for Airstrike Bird Control. Hedin brings a Harris hawk and three different types of falcon to the landfill. Each has its own specialty: some are faster, some better for distance and others for flying into winds up to 60 mph.
Falconers are also finding success using their raptors in locations never tried before, such as at resorts and college campuses and around refineries, Cattoor said.
Some animal rights activists worry the practice exploits the birds and could attract unscrupulous people into a small sporting community that is largely self-policed. The raptors inevitably kill some pest birds despite handlers' efforts, said Martin Mersereau, a director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"It's extremely cruel because those targeted bird species are torn apart in unanticipated attacks," he said. "There's nothing natural about jailing raptors in tiny cages, forcing them to wear hoods, hauling them to a bird roost and letting them wreak havoc."
The falconers insist that they are focused on scaring, not killing, birds. They apprentice for years with no pay before getting a license allowing them to use their birds for profit-making purposes. Most still hunt with their raptors in the wild primarily as a sport, not a business.
"People have a very Disneyized version of nature in their heads, and it's only when a human gets involved that predation becomes real for them," Hedin said.
Most businesses that have hired falconers say the raptors have succeeded where other solutions have failed.
Falconers who work year-round can make up to $90,000 a year or up to $800 a day given the right winery job with 14-hour days.
In Southern California, Orange County used Hedin for a trial program at the landfill and then added falconry at two more sites after spending years trying to chase away gulls using air cannons, recorded distress cries, balloons painted with pictures of hawks and a jerry-rigged system of wires hanging in the air.
This year, the county budgeted up to $380,000 for bird control after seeing success, said Kevin Kondru, deputy director for OC Waste & Recycling's north region.
Rams Gate Winery in Sonoma hired the Reno-based Tactical Avian Predators this year after losing up to 10 percent of their grape harvest to starlings. They had spent $600 per acre on petroleum-based netting and noisemakers, but this harvest season, they spent $400 per acre on falconry and saw a loss of 5 percent, said David Oliver, the winery's general manager.
The fact that the birds of prey are a sustainable solution doesn't hurt, Oliver said — nor does the fact that they are so amazing to watch.
"The speed and agility at which those birds operate is absolutely phenomenal and the moment that falcon goes up in the air, all of the other pesky birds basically just disappear," he said. "It's almost like they have radar that tells them to get out of the county."
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