June 7, 2012
At many landfills an air battle for supremacy takes place every day. On one side are seagulls; crafty, tenacious birds that size up landfills as gourmet buffets, creating a financial and public relations nightmare for waste facility operators.
And increasingly, standing in their way, are falcons, trained predators that generally scare the alternative daily cover out of the gulls.
Left undeterred, seagulls and their droppings can damage landfill equipment and neighboring residential property, says Stuart Rossell, manager, U.S. operations for Plattsburgh, N.Y.-based Falcon Environmental Services. Studies have shown that unabated flocking seagulls are liable to eat and destroy native bird populations, adds John Wong, San Francisco-based West region post-collection manager for Republic Services Inc.
Then there’s the public perception that your run-of-the-mill landfill is infested with avian nuisances. “We don’t want to present ourselves like the movie ‘The Birds.’ If left uncontrolled, it could end up like a scene out of that movie,” says Wong.
The Raptor Factor
Landfill operators employ a range of other bird deterrent methods, such as pyrotechnics, guns, propane cannons and mylar balloons. Rossell claims those methods have limited effect. “Falcons work well because they are a natural predator to gulls and other species of birds.”
Wong is responsible for 30 landfills and 50 transfer stations for Phoenix-based Republic. The company requires that all its facilities have some form of bird mitigation. About 25 percent of Wong’s facilities use falconry. He says his policy has been to use a combination of methods – falcons, pyrotechnics and dogs, to chase away the gulls at ground level. “Birds are very adaptive,” he says. “They get used to one method. To really mitigate you have to use multiple methods at the same time.”
But Rossell disputes the notion that the gulls get used to one particular method. “Not where falcons are concerned. You can just use falcons. The other methods they will get used to. If it’s just pyrotechnics, it becomes background noise.”
Rossell, whose company provides falcon service for five landfills in the United States and six in Canada, does use pyrotechnics as a supplement to help build up fear with the approaching vehicles. There’s an art to using pyrotechnics, he says, and landfill operators can make life harder on themselves by not using them correctly, accelerating the rate at which gulls become desensitized.
Waste Management Inc.’s Simi Valley Landfill and Recycling Center is nestled in the hills of California’s Ventura County about 20 miles from the coast. The 100-acre landfill pioneered the use of falcons in 2000, officials claim. “We’ve been very happy with the falcon program since we started here,” says Scott Tignac, district manager for Houston-based Waste Management. “Without the falcons [bird control] would be more difficult.”
“What makes it so great is, it’s very effective and it’s very natural,” says Joe Suffredini, master falconer subcontracted by Waste Management and owner of Castaic, Calif.-based Avian Entertainment. “Falcons are just a natural predator, and the seagulls know it.”
And they know the difference. Suffredini says. He has also used crows, but the seagulls recognize the different wing configuration. Plus, falcons are easier to manage.
Seagulls are the primary animal pest for most landfills, though Rossell says he also has used falcons to chase away crows and starlings. He hasn’t trained falcons for turkey vultures, but he thinks they could do the job. Wong says black birds also can be a problem, but they are able to rely on canons or pyrotechnics for that species. Mammals like bears and coyotes haven’t presented a problem at landfills Wong polices, as most sites are fenced in.
There’s both empirical and anecdotal evidence that using falcons as a bird deterrent works. A study by the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory in March examined the Newby Island Landfill in Milpitas, Calif. It showed the results of the operation trying a variety of bird control approaches. With a multi-abatement approach, which is falconry based, for the first three months of 2012 the number of gulls decreased from an average of 1,528 per hour in January to 29 an hour in March. Thus, the group recommended the multi-abatement approach.
By comparison, a multi-approach including but not dominated by falcons from June to December 2008 saw gull counts rise slightly but stay under 500; using pyrotechnics only found gulls increasing from more than 500 to more than 1,000 from January to December 2009; a falcon-based approach dropped counts from about 1,250 in December 2009 to less than 500 by July 2011; and a remote-control eagle and pyrotechnics decreased the population from about 1,300 in October 2011 to slightly less than 1,000 in December 2011. The number of gulls in the pre-abatement period was as much as about 3,500 in February 2007.
Rossell says a typical day begins with the falconers putting the falcons out on a “weathering lawn,” a secure holding area where they can bathe and enjoy the weather. Each falcon has a flying time slot. They are weighed, hooded and loaded into four-wheel drive vehicles to go out to the landfill.
Each falcon has an optimal flying weight: If it’s too heavy it won’t come back for the food reward; if it’s too light it will lack energy and not fly properly. Hoods are used to keep the birds calm until it’s time to fly. They are driven up to a high spot overlooking the working face to await the arrival of the gulls. When a group of gulls begin persisting in trying to land, one of the falcons will be flown to scare them away.
If after two hours no gulls arrive, the falcon is given an exercise flight both to keep it in shape and to serve notice to any gulls who happen to be loafing in the area that the falcons are on the prowl.
Suffredini says his falcons will typically fly 10 to 30 minutes; the seagulls usually leave immediately when the falcons are airborne. He’ll often alter the schedule by an hour to keep the gulls off-guard. His food incentive for the falcons to return is farm-raised quail. They also wear a radio transmitter. “But it’s rare they fly off,” he says. “They’re happy to return.”
Falcon patrol at a landfill is a full-time job. Rossell says his company’s program typically involves two falconers with 10 trained falcons flying throughout the day. If it’s just one falconer, seagulls will watch for the person to leave. “To be really effective you have to keep the gulls off completely; you can’t give them even five minutes,” he says. “Otherwise they’ll just come back the next day.”
Rossell prefers to be on site from the moment a landfill begins accepting garbage until the moment operators have it covered. “Gulls will fly 60 miles to get their food. They can get their daily rations in 10 minutes. The key is keeping them off completely.” Wong concurs. “You have to be consistent or you’re wasting your time.”
Wong says often a scout seagull or two can be spotted first thing in the morning. “If you chase the scout away from your operation you make the rest of your day much easier,” he says, “because the flock will follow the scout.”
Birds of a Feather
It takes weeks of training before the falcons are even ready for the landfill, and years before they are really good at it. Rossell pegs the initial training at six weeks, and then two to three years for them to gradually improve to peak efficiency. He likes to balance his team with youth and experience, with a couple falcons two to five years old and one or two new recruits.
Rossell works with larger falcons – the female Peregrines, Sakers and Gyrafalcons. Suffredini also uses Lanners, which tend to be smaller. Because of differences with the species and individuals within each species, Rossell advocates a mixture of breeds on the team.
One thing all falcon breeds have in common is that they are birds of prey, and as such, they can be touchy, Suffredini says. Falconers don’t want them eating or attacking the seagulls, because they wouldn’t work afterward, Wong adds.
“Falcons are not pets,” Rossell says. “You just have a working relationship with them. Some might be friendlier than others. But if they disliked the work, they’d fly away.”
And they do enjoy flying. “Falcons love to be in the air,” Suffredini says. “It’s their favorite thing. So getting a chance to fly is a big thing for them.”
Generally they are good to work with, Rossell says. But they do have individual personalities; some are shyer, some more difficult to work with than others. Suffredini’s favorite is a hard-working Peregrine named Brooke. “She understands what to do, is amazingly obedient and happy to do her job – you can just tell,” he says.
Rossell says Falcon Environmental breeds most of the birds it uses. The parents are falcons that have flown over landfills for years. The company produces 20 to 30 falcons a year to replace the rare ones that disappear, ones injured from collisions (often with machinery or wires) or ones that just aren’t working out (also rare).
Typically the best falcons are pulled from service for breeding after three or four years. Suffredini says the lifespan of a falcon is about five to 10 years.
Weather is factor for both the predator and the prey at landfills. The gulls become more determined to forage in snow or consecutive stormy days. Spring is nesting time for the gulls and the most challenging time for landfill operators, Wong says; if the gulls get more food, they’ll lay more eggs and produce more pests.
Snow also cuts down the falconers’ ability to see the falcons. Rossell says he prefers not to fly the falcons if the winds are more than 35 mph or it’s raining heavily.
Rossell’s company works with other industries, including the military and aviation, where falcons are needed to chase away pests. Chasing birds from airports allows less margin for error since they pose a serious hazard to aircraft. “But landfills are harder to contain the gulls because you have this huge food source,” he says. “They don’t want to leave.”
Suffredini works primarily with the waste industry. He also does television work with Avian Entertainment, including a recent State Farm Insurance commercial that includes a falcon.
“I never really get a day off,” he says. “But it really is a labor of love. It’s more a lifestyle than a career.”
Falcon flying at landfills and elsewhere is highly regulated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Operators need to have enough experience to be permitted, Suffredini says, and there’s a lot of paperwork to be done, tracking the birds’ comings and goings. It’s required in the United States that the birds used are captive-bred.
But some regulations have loosened up and helped falconers in landfill operations. The wildlife service used to permit only certain falcons for the work, the smaller Saker and Lanner species, Rossell says. That changed four years ago, and now falconers can use any species in bird abatement.
Falconry at landfills is becoming more popular, but it isn’t cheap. Wong says it costs $5,000 just to train a falcon. One alternative Republic has experimented with is a model airplane that looks like an eagle and carries a voice recorder with eagle sounds, but it acts like a falcon. The results so far have been promising, he says, but it’s early.Still, it’s hard to top trained falcons for landfill pest control. “It is the most costly method, but you probably get the best results,” Wong says. Republic does bird counts to measure the program’s effectiveness. “Our experience has been that using falcons costs about the same [as other methods] but the effectiveness is so much more,” says Waste Management’s Tignac.
Rossell points out that his company has to provide multiple personnel, equipment, pyrotechnics, falcons, food, an office to work from and radio telemetry. “If [landfill operators] have public relations problems, and most of them do, it’s worth their while to have us there, because the problems go away.”
And when there are guests, there’s the collateral benefit of education and entertainment. “At one site’s open house, everybody was saying the falcons are their favorite things to see,” Rossell says.
As far as convincing customers that it’s a good investment, Rossell recalls a conversation with a landfill operator who told him how much his bulldozer cost. “You’re just buying equipment,” he says. “You want to do the job properly. It does the job. If it’s keeping the gulls clear, no complaints, no lawsuits ... if you can sleep better at night, then it’s not expensive.”
Allan Gerlat is News Editor for Waste Age and waste360.com.