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Trained Falcons Serve as High-Flying Scarecrows

When falcons take to the air, sparrows, starlings, and pigeons know to get the flock out of there.

Watch: See how falcons are used to police pesky birds.

What’s that in the sky? It’s a bird, it’s a plane … no, it actually is a bird.

More specifically, it’s a raptor, a bird of prey commonly used in the ancient hunting practice of falconry. But instead of releasing a falcon and just letting it soar through the sky before snatching up prey, Vahe' Alaverdian and the California-based Falcon Force, Inc. are using their birds to haze away unwanted sparrows, starlings, and pigeons from clients’ properties.

“The principal of falconry applies, but the objective of the sport is completely different,” Alaverdian says.

Falcon Force, Inc. employs a method called falconry-based bird abatement, where falcons are trained to ward off nuisance birds. Springing from a falconer’s leather-gloved hand, the raptor takes to the sky and zooms around a client’s property, swooping down to ward off sparrows, starlings, and pigeons terrorizing the area. Roughly half of the company’s clientele are involved in agriculture, where pesky birds feed on farmers’ berries.

This breed of bird abatement started gaining popularity in the mid-2000s. Falcon Force, Inc., founded in 2009, also caters to venues like resorts, theme parks, industrial buildings, golf courses, and hotels.

The practice requires that captive-bred falcons undergo intense training, says Getty Pollard, president of the bird abatement company B-1RD, based in Oregon.

Fowl Play

In falconry, raptors typically glide through the air for five to 10 minutes until they spot prey, swoop down, and snatch it up to eat. But bird abatement falcons must have the stamina to fly long distances for extended periods of time. Alaverdian and other falconers train and closely monitor how much food their birds eat, making sure they’re fed so that they don’t make meals of the nuisance birds they’re trying to shake off.

“It’s a very high level of training and it takes a couple years for your bird to get that,” Pollard says.

Watch: Ride on the back of a soaring falcon.

Chris North of another California company called Airstrike Bird Control, Inc. says there’s a different mentality to abatement, whereas falconry is traditionally practiced for hunting.

“We do not go out there with the intention of slaughtering anything,” North says.

Falconry-based bird abatement is more successful at getting rid of nuisance birds than other methods, says David Wiedenfeld, senior conservation scientist at the American Bird Conservancy in Virginia. Techniques involving air cannons, fireworks, and distress calls are often on timers, and starlings and sparrows quickly recognize their patterns and avoid them. Mylar tape, netting, and artificial predators may fool the birds at first, but they soon realize these objects are harmless. But the random swoops of a raptor never cease to terrify these pesky birds.

“Practically nothing else works, long-term,” Alaverdian says. “Nothing is going to scare off a prey species but their own predator.”

Back to the Nest

Unsurprisingly, this method of bird abatement hatched out of falconry, which is thought to have originated about 4,000 years ago in the Mediterranean. Crusaders and travelers brought the sport to Medieval Europe, and later, owning raptors became a status symbol. Today, falconry races are a popular sport in the United Arab Emirates, where winning prizes include luxury cars and millions of dollars.

In order to join this legacy, prospective falconers have to have as much stamina as their birds.

Falconry is a highly regulated sport in the United States. The North American Falconers Association requires an apprenticeship of at least two years, and it takes seven or more years to become a Master falconer. Falconers-in-training must pay for expensive permits and licenses. On top of that, they have to spend money on food, shelter, equipment, vet care, travel, and land to fly their birds.

As it’s illegal to sell a wild-caught raptor in the United States, many falconers catch their first falcons in the wild by removing a chick from a nest. Falcons used for bird abatement must be raised in captivity.

“To gain the trust of something that’s a wild animal, it’s fantastic,” North says. “It doesn’t matter which bird you got ... all of them have this mystique.”

Falcon Force, Inc. takes its birds out for 12 or more hours each day. With that level of intensity, Alaverdian says, “the relationship you have with these birds better be the greatest.”

Because it’s roots run so deep, Alaverdian says falconry will be around for a long time. And with the increasing push for sustainability, he adds, falconry-based bird abatement may become more popular, too.

“Falconry’s here to stay for as long as mankind lives,” Alaverdian says. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Follow Elaina Zachos on Twitter.

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