Falconry for Pest Control

Learn how a falconry business is hawking alternative methods of controlling gulls, starlings, and other unwanted avian visitors.

Anna is thought to be among the best female gyr x peregrine falcons in the United States for harassing other birds. You might consider Anna petite, at no more than 2 feet tall when her 3-1/2-foot wingspan is contracted. Set loose on a strawberry farm being terrorized by European starlings, though, she’ll corral and chase off up to 5,000 birds on her own, flying at more than 150 miles per hour. A flock of starlings can decimate 80 percent of a berry crop in about five hours; that’s why Anna’s work is valuable. She’s one of about 20 birds of prey flying for Adam’s Falconry Service, a bird abatement business in Southern California that uses birds of prey as nontoxic, nonlethal bird control.

Falconer Danny Duque with Anna, a Gyr X Peregrine falcon.

“It can look like a scene from The Birds,” says Adam Chavez, owner and master falconer of Adam’s Falconry Service, describing the typical job site before he or one of his 15 crew members shows up. Each type of facility tends to attract a particular set of avian pests: Gulls, crows, and ravens plague landfills; starlings target agricultural land; and pigeons infest industrial sites. Every facility manager has tested numerous abatement methods before turning to falcons.

“They try spikes, mirrors, and noise gadgets like ‘bird bangers’ or whistlers,” Chavez says, describing several clients’ failed attempts at using reflective gel packs, which show lackluster performance after they become dirty, and hotels that have deployed robotic “spiders” to clamber across their rooftops, only to have pest birds dance around them. On berry farms in Oregon and Washington, farmers invest in expensive netting, only to find European starlings reaching right through the netting to snatch fruit. Luckily, falconry abatement can reduce crop loss to only 5 percent, indicative of its efficacy for most bird-beleaguered sites. “Every option loses its effectiveness over time,” Chavez says. Every abatement option except falconry, it seems.

Historical Hawking

“Falconry” serves as a catchall term for the traditional art and practice of keeping, training, and flying most birds of prey, including falcons, kites, hawks, and even owls. (Someone who flies only hawks or eagles would be called an “austringer” by those in the know, while a “hawker” flies birds exclusively for hunting, regardless of species.) More than 100 species of raptors have been trained using falconry techniques in one of the oldest relationships between humans and birds.

Some theories suggest falconry has a dual lineage, developing concurrently in the Mongolian steppes and in historical Persia (now Iran) between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago. Alongside Mongolia, China may also have elevated falconry to the position of prestige it occupied for millennia. Falcons were traded as diplomatic gifts so extensively that by the time Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled to the region during the 1270s, he reported as many as 10,000 falconers in Kublai Khan’s imperial court.

These deep cultural roots aren’t lost on Adam Chavez, who, in addition to owning his falconry business, serves as president of the California Hawking Club, the largest falconry club in the United States, and as director-at-large for the North American Falconers Association. Through these affiliations and years of advocacy, he’s helped ensure that falconry is recognized for its cultural heritage. In 2016, the practice was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a “living treasure.”

Chavez trained his first falcon at the age of 12, but didn’t establish Adam’s Falconry Service (initially a one-man operation) until he was laid off from a position as a hospital representative following the 2008 economic recession. As he pondered his future business plan, several thousand gulls were descending on a nearby landfill outside San Juan Capistrano, California.

A falconer acquaintance was providing abatement services at the landfill, but couldn’t keep up with the flow of gulls, which flew in by the thousands. The acquaintance invited Adam’s Falconry Service to split his contract with the county. Chavez’s falcons drove the flock of gulls down to a couple hundred on the worst days, and it wasn’t long before the acquaintance offered to hand over their half of the contract. After only two months in operation, Adam’s Falconry Service had its first client.

Falcons in the Field

Many falconers favor a particular species. Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), Harris’s hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus), and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are preferred by North American falconers. Chavez chooses his birds based on clients’ needs and species’ suitability for them. Saker falcons (Falco cherrug) are large, migratory birds that winter in Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula in the wild. They work well in hot environments, so Chavez favors them for beaches and landfills. Sakers can also fly eight or nine times per day for up to an hour at a time, making them workhorses among raptors.

Auburn-colored Harris’s hawks can be flown in groups, hunting like a wolf pack. They’re good for working to push pigeons out of oil refineries, urban landscapes, and other tight, intricate spaces that can benefit from patrols by multiple birds. Chavez appreciates that Harris’s are low-stress to fly, because they won’t venture very far from their falconer. Barbary falcons (Falco pelegrinoides) and smaller peregrine falcons, on the other hand, have a wide-ranging flight style, which makes them less suited to complex landscapes, such as cities, but ideal for open fields, where they expertly control small pests.

Regardless of species, a typical abatement falcon (and falconer) works sunup to sundown. Agricultural pest birds are persistent, so to protect a crop of fruit, the falconer needs to live on the farm from the time the fruit begins to set until it’s time to harvest. Sometimes the falconer will camp with their birds, but often, the farmer will provide lodging for the falconer for the three weeks or up to two months they’re on the job. These sleeping quarters are typically provided in addition to $400 to $500 per day in wages, meaning that falconry abatement is often cost-effective only for either large farming enterprises or small ones with high-value crops.

Pest bird abatement typically doesn’t involve eating the pests, so the first morning chore for a falconer is to weigh the birds and portion out the food needed for the day. The amount of food a raptor will eat is proportional to its body weight, with larger birds requiring smaller proportions: A tiny, 100-gram kestrel might consume 20 percent of its body weight in a day, while a larger falcon will eat about 10 percent of its weight. Hawks, larger still, can get by on less, because they have more efficient digestive tracts.

In the field, Chavez releases a large hawk or a few aplomado falcons, along with a baited mechanical drone, at daybreak. As the pest birds arrive, he directs the drone, with birds of prey in pursuit, toward the pest birds, who change course to avoid the predators. Because an individual falcon will tire after an hour or so, Chavez keeps a few birds in “weathering yards,” screened enclosures that resemble 8-by-8-foot dog runs, and alternates fatigued birds throughout the day with those waiting in the wings. Before a falcon is released, Chavez outfits it with a transmitter, which allows him to track each bird’s whereabouts on his phone. Despite thousands of years of human-raptor relations, raptors remain wild animals. They do fly off, and it can be an arduous task for the falconer to recover their runaway.

“I wanted to strangle him,” Chavez says of one saker falcon that flew off during its first abatement job. Chavez located the falcon five days later at a landfill 3 miles away from the job site. Chavez trudged through the landfill, waving a lure, a string with a piece of worn leather that mimics a scrap of meat attached at the end, until the falcon swooped within nabbing distance, and he was able to grab it with a gloveless hand.

For the most part, the risk of a trained bird flying off is low. Raptors learn through positive reinforcement to establish a perimeter within view of a familiar landmark, such as their falconer’s vehicle. After a job is finished, they travel back home, hooded and secure in the vehicle’s portable “hawk house,” to a mew, or permanent raptor enclosure.

At home, training continues. Falconers train their birds using a lure, a lure pole (which looks like a fishing pole with a piece of leather at one end), and gloved hands. Chavez aims for his birds to return to his lure or hand for a piece of meat as many as 100 passes per session. Over time, the process conditions falcons to return readily to their falconers — and cultivates an intense, lasting bond.

Birds of Play

The connection between Chavez and his birds is critical to Adam’s Falconry Service’s educational activities. From the beginning, when he established the business with a particularly friendly Harris hawk named Horus, Chavez has hosted a number of hands-on educational classes each week. Groups of up to 25 participants pay about $65 each for a one-hour experience in which they learn how to use a lure and marvel at the personalities of the individual birds. Children seem to especially love Bo, a Eurasian eagle owl with neon-orange eyes, who swoops through crowds with a 41⁄2-foot wingspan. Chavez’s birds are also available for weddings and other events. On one memorable occasion, Horus, who had been conscripted to be a ringbearer for a wedding but who’s also easily distracted, got sidetracked on his flight to the groom and instead perched atop a guest’s hat halfway down the aisle. “The theme of the wedding was ‘steampunk’, so they seemed to be happy with their out-of-norm experience,” Chavez says.

At events, Chavez meets many aspiring falconers to whom he offers a few pieces of advice. “It takes a lot of time!” he cautions. “You don’t just go on vacation and leave a bird like this at home.” Raising birds of prey requires a considerable level of husbandry. Falconers source frozen quail, fresh young chickens, or mice for their birds. Many falconers give their birds supplements, such as Vitahawk, which is sprinkled on the raptor food like salt and pepper. Then, there are issues of keeping mews clean. “When hawks poop, they will shoot up to 3 feet,” Chavez says, driving home the point that cleaning up can be a major chore. Also, building a mew, purchasing lures and gloves, and paying regional falconry club dues can run from $1,500 to $4,000. Some states require mew inspections and license fees too — all this before an apprentice falconer can capture their first raptor.

Regardless of whether you plan to get into pest bird abatement or hunting, all falconers undergo a two-year apprenticeship program. You’ll need to find a sponsor near you, which you can do by joining a regional falconry club. The club will help you learn what kind of falconer you want to become. For example, “micro-falconers” prefer to fly smaller birds, such as merlins or kestrels. “Dirt-hawkers” fly red-tailed hawks, Harris’s hawks, and eagles, particularly for hunting. And “long-wingers” fly large peregrine falcons and prairie falcons, often for hunting ducks and grouse.

Finally, falconers have developed a sort of land ethic all their own over the years. Birds of prey around the world face hazards, such as pesticides and habitat loss. Although falconry itself is a relatively low-impact activity, it does require plenty of open space for the raptors to fly — space that Chavez believes is becoming increasingly difficult to find, particularly in California. He says all falconry enthusiasts, regardless of whether they keep their own birds, can support raptors by building nest boxes or platforms, planting trees in critical habitat, or donating to conservation programs. “Every falconer is a bit of a conservationist,” Chavez says. “We want to preserve the birds, the land, and the prey.”

Falconry Resources

Kale Roberts is a former editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and a current senior program officer with ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, where he supports cities across the United States to develop sustainability and climate action plans.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368