Bird control

County contracts with falconer to scare off migratory gulls

Birdman Dave Myers and his gyrfalcon, Crystal, protect the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility from invading gulls.

Birdman Dave Myers and his gyrfalcon, Crystal, protect the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility from invading gulls.

photo by tom gascoyne

Butte County has adopted a new way to discourage the thousands of California gulls that visit the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility every winter: hawks and falcons.

For years the landfill has served as a cafeteria of sorts for the gulls, which consume food scraps and then circle above, dropping their waste on landfill workers and customers below. The food they’re consuming and then depositing may be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. In recent years the state has urged landfills to try to disperse the birds, or the “flying rats,” as employees have come to call them.

The gulls, though considered disease-spreading vectors, are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act, making it illegal to kill them or remove them or their nests from private property. Of course, the property where the landfill has sat for nearly 50 years is public, and the birds—which come from Utah—don’t actually nest there.

Initially the county used pyrotechnics in the form of a propane-fired cannon that would emit a blast on regular basis, unnerving not only the gulls, but also the workers and customers.

Marina Winslow is the county’s solid-waste inspector. “I inspect the landfill every month,” she said. “Vector control is required by the state.”

An inspection report from her on the landfill dated Feb. 25, 2008, includes the note: “Upon [local enforcement agency] arrival to the tipping area, numerous seagulls were observed at the working face. Take necessary measures to keep birds out from the open space.”

Her Dec. 23, 2008, inspection report says: “Seagulls were observed at the work face area. The operator was applying screamers to control the birds.” Winslow said the “screamers,” or sound-producing devices, were not effective.

“The gulls were not scared of the sound of the shotgun at all,” she said. “They don’t care.”

So the county decided to try a new approach. In December, it awarded falconer Dave Myers a four-month contract to see if he could disperse the scavengers with his falcons and hawks. Judging from a demonstration last Sunday morning (March 10) organized by Winslow for county employees and their families, the new approach is not only effective, but also makes for great theater.

Myers, of Oroville, owns Bird Abatement Services. He’s long been a falconer, having gotten his first bird in 1967, when he was 12 years old.

“I was originally a lizard boy before I got a bird,” he said. “I guess I just advanced.”

He got the county contract—$1,000 a week—after making a bid last fall and is now on site seven days a week, six hours a day.

He has a business partner named Alan Taylor who’s been a falconer for 25 years. They have 10 birds in all—falcons and hawks—and use a combination of them each day. So far, the birds of prey haven’t caught a single gull, but their mere presence is enough to keep the pests away.

As Myers talked, the peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons and Harris hawks were either in crates or sitting outside tethered to perches. The birds wore fitted leather hoods to keep them calm. One gyrfalcon was on a perch on the front seat of Myers’ parked truck, listening to county-western music.

“It keeps her calm,” Myers said. “At home they have TVs, and they mostly watch the hunting station.”

Myers demonstrated two approaches to scaring off the gulls. The first was carried out by a 9-month-old falcon named Parker. Myer pulled the hooded bird out of his crate and fitted his leg with an electronic tracking device. Then, with the bird placed on his leather-banded wrist, he removed the hood. Parker, tethered to Myers’ arm, fluffed his wings and gave out a series of screeches.

Almost as if on cue, a flock of perhaps 100 gulls had gathered in the sky above, circling in coordinated motion and moving closer to the ground and its awaiting trash.

Myers pulled out a “pole-lure”—a fishing pole attached to a rope that carried a piece of meat on its end. He released Parker and began swinging the meat. The bird began its swift motion of flight, rising and then diving in blazing speed toward the food. The swarming gulls noticed this, and in unison they lifted higher and moved to the south.

Myers then pulled a Harris hawk named Venus from her crate and removed her hood. She, too, sat on his leather glove as he walked her across the landfill to a point about a quarter-mile away. He warned the children before he walked away, “Kids, keep quiet and don’t wave your arms and hands. She might think you’re food.”

He released Venus, and she flew over the area where customers—private and commercial—were dumping their trash. The bird landed about 25 yards from her audience on a post that held food. Her initial flight again pushed away the circling gulls that had moved back and closer to the ground. She then made a series of flights, circling each time back to Myers’ waiting glove. The gulls disappeared.

Myers said that, besides the landfill, he has a contract with the county’s two casinos to help keep them pigeon free. And he is hoping to expand his business to cover area agricultural businesses as well.

Bill Mannel is the manager of the county’s Waste Management Division. He said the county is working under the California Code of Minimum Standards for hauling and disposing of waste materials, which includes keeping vectors out of the trash.

“We typically cover the trash with soil or tarps at night, to keep the gulls away from the trash this time of year, he said. “We used pyrotechnics for a while, but that was pretty devastating to the workers and the public.”

The gulls, he pointed out, learned to live with the blasts.

“It’s amazing how adaptable the gulls are for these predators, too,” he said. “If [Myers] comes out at 9 or 10 in the morning, they’ll fly away. But they’ll come back the next day at 7 in the morning. So now he comes out and stays from 7 until 4.”

Mannel said that, beyond state encouragement, the county is trying to effectively shoo away the gulls for practical reasons.

“We did this in part to try to find a very effective technique to protect the employees and our customers,” he said. “You put 5,000 gulls in the area, and they’re crapping on everything.”