Daniel Hedin is in the falcon business.
At Airstrike Bird Control, Inc., where Hedin is an operations manager, the company uses trained birds of prey — falcons and hawks — to scare away other birds from client sites.
“Falcons are the fastest animals in the world, with hunting speeds up to around 250 miles per hour,” Hedin said. “The only way to escape a falcon is to get away before it starts coming for you.”
Because falcons and hawks hunt these birds in the wild, the prey birds immediately flee when they notice their predator, even though the falcons aren’t there to cause harm. It’s simply a scare tactic.
“Abatement falconry has a big immediate impact, and over time causes a long-term reduction in the number of pest birds on a site,” Hedin said. “It’s important to understand, though, that the goal is deterrence. A single falcon can’t kill enough pest birds to make much of a difference. The reason it works is that none of them want to be the one that’s caught, and so they all leave.”
Central Valley clients include various types of food processing facilities such as wineries, dairies and tomato and pistachio processing areas, as well as other agricultural businesses and resorts.
Some jobs are full-time, year-round, while others are seasonal. Every job site is unique, with its own needs and challenges.
Joseph Lipka, environmental manager at Forward Landfill in Manteca, said his company has been hiring Airstrike to maintain seagull populations for more than five years—longer than he has been working there.
At Forward Landfill, it is especially important to control seagull numbers because the airport is nearby and a bird strike can prove catastrophic for airplanes.
October through April, when seagull populations are high, Airstrike sends two employees and one to two falcons to the site during operating hours, Monday through Saturday.
During that time, Lipka said he might see five seagulls, but they never land. “Most of the time there aren’t even any gulls,” he said. “There’s like a bubble around the site.”
At other landfills, Lipka said it is not uncommon to see 5,000-30,000 seagulls at one time.
Potential danger doesn’t only apply to the airplanes, either. In large enough numbers the seagulls pose a health risk to site employees due to the large number of droppings.
Without falconry, the only other option Lipka would have is to use fireworks at the site to scare the seagulls—another scare tactic.
“Other methods like noisemakers or kites can work for a little while, but before long the pest birds get used to them and ignore them,” Hedin said.
Outside of the Central Valley, the national company specializes in other applications. Along the coast, it is common for vineyards and resorts to hire Airstrike and in Silicon Valley it’s commercial facilities and corporate campuses that make up most of the region’s clientele. The Midwest clientele looks much like the Central Valley’s.
In Washington, companies hire Airstrike to maintain pests that may attack blueberry plants and other tree fruit. Other applications include educational and medical facilities, solar farms, oil refineries and airports.
“Wherever pest birds are a problem, falconry is a great solution,” Hedin said.
For most jobs, a falconer shows up on site with up to six trained raptors (a bird of prey). Agricultural applications need a lot of falcons to maintain populations of pest birds while just two hawks can typically handle commercial facilities or places like Forward landfill. Most jobs fall in-between.
“The falconer [a person who keeps, trains or hunts with falcons, hawks or other birds of prey] patrols, looking for pest birds, and releases a raptor at them. The raptor takes control of the airspace, driving out all the pests and then returns to the falconer for a reward and a rest,” Hedin explained. “The next raptor is then rotated into duty.”
Most who pursue falconry do it to hunt ducks or pheasant with falcons or rabbits with hawks. Some go on to apply the skill-set for use in professional pest bird abatement, which is what Airstrike does. In his spare time, Hedin uses the seven falcons he has at home to hunt.
On the job, only birds are handled. Hedin is clear that Airstrike doesn’t provide rodent control. In fact, that’s something they aren’t good for at all because rodents live underground where falcons can’t follow them.
“We control the sky,” he said.