Sky Patrol

JUST WEST OF THE SIX FLAGS Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia, Calif., falcons soar over Republic Industries' Chiquita Canyon Landfill, providing a different kind of thrill for seagulls that try to make the landfill a feeding site.

According to Mike Dean, general manager of the facility, the Saker falcons that are provided by a local falconer under contract are effective in driving the seagulls away from the landfill. The 592-acre site averages 7,500 tons and 400 vehicles per day of Los Angeles County solid waste, which primarily arrives in transfer trailers. “We started the falcon program approximately five years ago,” Dean says. “I'd heard about falcons being used for hunting and in agricultural applications to keep birds off of crops. I was trying to find someone when I was contacted by a local guy that lives just a couple of miles from the landfill.”

Under state law, vectors have to be kept under control, but seagulls are attracted to the landfill as a food source. Prior to employing the falcons in 2002, the company tried various techniques to keep the seagulls under control. “We had noise makers, scarecrows, owls and electronic equipment that put out seagull distress calls that were suppose to keep the birds away,” says Dean. “It seems like the birds adapted to most things.

“We tried the falcons, and it's worked.”

Federal law prohibits the use of native species for predatory control. The landfill circumvents this regulation because Saker falcons are native to the Middle East.

Dean says the falconer brings between three and seven birds each day to the landfill. Each bird is given an opportunity to fly and then is allowed to rest while the next bird takes wing. “He'll fly the birds when the seagulls start coming in and are getting ready to land on the working face,” Dean says. “He keeps the birds in his truck where they are sheltered. When he's ready to have a bird fly, he'll place a transmitter on their foot and on their tail. That's in case the bird decides to fly off, he can pull out his tracking gear and locate the bird. They always keep a leather hood over their heads to keep them calm. In an enclosed environment like the back of a pick-up truck, they'll actually want to attack each other because they're very territorial.”

The falcons are only flown when the seagulls are present. Dean says the seagull problem is particularly prevalent during the winter, when storms coming from the Pacific Ocean drive the seagulls inland. The falcon control method relies on the predator-prey model to discourage the seagulls. The moment that the falcon is released, the seagulls sense the presence of a predatory bird and will fly away. The falcon is only used to scare the birds away; no seagulls are attacked by the falcons.

Ironically, the landfill neighbors a California condor refuge. When a condor, with its daunting eight-foot wingspan, makes an occasional flight near the landfill, the falcons themselves recognize the threat and are reluctant to fly.

While the falcon program has been highly successful, Dean continues to explore other techniques to control the seagulls. “One thing we did last year on a demonstration basis was radio controlled airplanes and helicopters. We had a couple of day demonstrations that actually showed a lot of promise.” Dean adds that the radio-controlled aircraft have a side benefit of making a lot of noise and actually are able to “herd” invading flocks off the property.

Lynn Merrill is a contributing writer based in San Bernardino, Calif.

TAGS: Nuisances