October 1, 2001

4 Min Read
LANDFILL: Washington Landfill Is No Longer for the Birds

Kim A. O'Connell

From the scarecrow in Mr. McGregor's garden, to the crack of noisemakers near airports, many have attempted to deter birds from places they don't belong. Still, swarms of seagulls and other birds are as common at landfills as bulldozers.

One Washington landfill, however, has found an enduring way to keep those pesky creatures at bay. Fighting feathers with feathers, Rabanco Regional Disposal Co., Rabanco, Wash., uses falcons to drive off gulls at its Roosevelt, Wash.-based facility.

Rabanco maintains 500 acres of active cells on a 5,000-acre landfill. Before the falcons were brought in, flocks of gulls bombarded machinery and workers with their droppings — a nuisance at best, and a health hazard at worst. The company tried noisemakers such as bottle rockets, cannons and firecrackers to deter the birds, but the noise was disruptive and did not keep birds away for good. As many as 5,000 gulls were estimated to be gathered at the landfill at one time.

“We had a bird evasion program in place where we used a lot of pyrotechnics, shells, wires, distress calls — all with limited success,” says Pete Keller, the facility's general manager. “We were looking at basically a full-time position for someone to chase seagulls around and [they weren't] really getting anywhere.”

The company then turned to the U.S. Air Force for a solution. Military air bases and about 20 commercial airports worldwide have tried to keep birds away from airplanes for decades. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that plane-bird collisions cost $400 million in damages in 1997 alone.

Although the hazards might not be as disastrous at landfills as they are on runways, the waste industry faces similar challenges. Subtitle D regulations require a bird deterrent plan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., suggests several different bird deterrents for landfills, including falcons.

After reading about an Air Force base that had successfully used falcons to scare birds, Rabanco called Klearview Resources, Spokane, Wash., the company that supplied the falcons. With 30 years of falconry experience, Klearview uses trained falcon handlers and birds to deter gulls and other pests at landfills and airports.

Seagulls are naturally afraid of falcons, so putting them through normal flying exercises near where gulls gather is a natural deterrent. The falcons do not attack or kill the gulls; they only intimidate them into moving elsewhere.

Birds quickly become accustomed to other deterrent devises used at landfills, Keller says.

“[Other methods only] shock and scare the birds off a couple thousand feet, and then the birds come back — it's just a temporary hindrance,” he says. “But with the presence of this natural predator, the gulls don't want anything to do with it.”

At first, under the guidance of their handler, Jimmy Bathke, the falcons flew around the entire 500-acre site, establishing their territory. Although established birds are difficult to dislodge from a favorite site, eventually the falcons were able to circulate in smaller and smaller areas. “After two to three weeks in the program, we had zero gulls,” Keller says. “Our success is basically 100 percent.”

Other effective bird deterrents are those that move and resemble predators, such as kites and balloons with large painted eyes. Some use arm-like rods or streaming strands of tape. A combination of sonic devices and artificial predators — such as plastic owls that make predator-like sounds, or “agony decoys” that resemble dead birds — have been known to work as well.

“One way to deter birds is to not keep a big working face open,” says Edward Repa, director of environmental programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C. “If you keep the equipment moving, but the working face small, you won't attract as many birds.”

Keller says the costs of falcons flying around the site for most of the year is comparable to the other systems. The key difference, Keller says, is that this system is effective and also is safe for the gulls. Stationary noisemakers and other devices, which can be purchased for tens or hundreds of dollars, may be relatively cheap compared to the costs of hiring a falconer and falcons, which can run into the thousands. However, landfill operators often purchase several stationary devices and constantly expend the manpower to move props around to be effective.

“It's prime bird control without shooting, poisoning, hitting, maiming, or throwing rocks and sticks to get rid of the pests,” says Klearview Resources owner David Knutson. “We don't have to kill anything. We go through our motions and through our exercises, and it keeps the birds away.”

EPA has issued a technical manual that addresses the criteria for operating solid waste landfills, including a section on deterring birds (Subpart B: Location Criteria). Visit www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/landfill/techman for more information.

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