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The falcon patrol

Environment: Birds of prey more effective at task than noisemakers, scarecrows

Posted: January 30, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: January 30, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Shelly, an adult saker falcon, flies by Justin Lilly, master falconer for Avian Entertainment, as garbage trucks dump their loads.

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As Shelly — a 5-year-old saker falcon — swooped through the air on a recent morning, the dozens of seagulls that had been lingering near newly disposed trash at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill hurriedly left the area.

Shelly returned to her handler, Justin Lilly, of Castaic, and grabbed a lure — a piece of leather that Lilly swings by a string — before receiving a piece of raw quail. Shelly eventually settled down on Lilly’s arm and ruffled her feathers.

“They all have their own personality,” said Lilly, who has been practicing falconry for 12 years and is a master falconer.
“When I first got into it, I thought birds were birds. Then I found out that they’re all different.”

Shelly is one of about 10 falcons used to patrol the air around the landfill to deter scavenging birds from eating bits of refuse at the active disposal site.

The falcons are owned by Avian Entertainment, which uses birds of prey and other animals in movie production, as well as natural pest abatement at three different landfills.

The landfill has used the falcons to deter scavenging birds for nearly a decade, said Mike Dean, division vice president for Waste Connections Inc., which operates Chiquita Canyon in Castaic.

The landfill has to follow regulations to ensure there aren’t scavenging birds, but traditional methods such as noisemakers or scarecrows don’t work for long, Dean said.

“All of those things haven’t worked,” Dean said. “Two days later, they’re perched on top of it.”

The landfill decided instead to use falcons to scare away the birds as an environmentally sound — and effective — method, Dean said. The falcons are needed only in the landfill area where trash is being tipped and covered.

The main birds used at the landfill — saker falcons — are desert birds and can handle both cold and heat, said Joe Suffredini, owner of Avian Entertainment. They’re native to the Middle East and Africa; however, all of the falcons working at the landfill are captive bred.

The seagulls are the biggest nuisance at the landfill, Dean said. They migrate from the coast during the winter and early spring, which means the falcons are busiest at that time.

The seagulls’ reaction to the presence of falcons is a natural response to a predatory threat, Lilly said. However, the falcons rarely attack any of the birds.

“We just have a no-kill policy,” said Lilly, who said the birds were more strongly attracted to the lure because of positive reinforcement that starts when they’re young. “We’re just there to scare the birds.”

Suffredini said that falcons from his company have attacked birds only about a half-dozen times during their landfill patrols.

He said the falcons are much more likely to go after pigeons than seagulls because pigeons are their natural prey.

Shelly was injured by a red-tailed hawk about three years ago after she brought down a pigeon, Suffredini said. Shelly was working at the Simi Valley Landfill at the time and was on the ground with the pigeon.

“They’re very vulnerable when they’re on the ground,” said Suffredini, who said the only natural predator of the saker falcon in their natural habitat are eagles.

The falcons may be trained, but that doesn’t mean they’re domesticated, Lilly said. Shelly and the other falcons wear tracking devices, bells and tags with their identification in case they get blown downwind or decide to explore.

“They’re trained, but they’re still wild,” Lilly said.

For Lilly, falconry is more than a hobby and now a job.

“In a way, it’s kind of an obsession,” Lilly said. “It’s addicting, it’s emotional, it’s just kind of a thing all its own.”

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