Patrolling the skies

Master falconer Nricco Iseppi and Maya, one of three Harris’s Hawks he owns, near his house in Malibu. Iseppi’s company, Pacific Coast Falconry, provides abatement services by employing hawks to scare or frighten birds such as sea gulls and pigeons away from areas where they have become a nuisance.

It’s a hazy Saturday at an office park in Santa Monica, and passersby skirting a large artificial pond in the park’s courtyard can’t help but notice master falconer Nricco Iseppi as he explains how he is ridding the park of its sea gull problem. Steps away, tethered docilely on perches, are three magnificent hawks.

As he is speaking, a half-dozen sea gulls land in the middle of the pond. Iseppi puts on a scratched leather glove, walks over to one of the hawks—and the gulls fly off.

“See what I mean? They’ve learned that they only have a few seconds to drink,” he says.

Iseppi, whose company, Pacific Coast Falconry, is based in rural Malibu, is one a handful of experts across the U.S. to use the ancient practice of falconry—using birds of prey to hunt game for sport—as the basis for a novel method of pest control.

In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began issuing permits to licensed master fal- coners to use raptors to “flush or haze” nuisance birds such as crows, sea gulls and starlings, among others. Instead of killing the nuisance birds, falconers unleash birds of prey to harass them. Over periods of weeks and months, the unwanted birds become conditioned to avoid the area and seek an alternative.

“I’m forcing them to become hungry until they find another place to seek another source of food,” Iseppi said, “and this place doesn’t have a problem anymore.”

Iseppi is one of 92 master falconers across the country with the federal bird abatement license. He says the solution lasts longer—and is more humane— than common deterrents such as needle strips, electrified shock tracks, hot glue pads and poisons such as Avitrol. That’s because the memory of one of his hawks chasing after them is enough to keep nuisance birds away long after he’s gone.

Office complexes, landfills, military airports and hospital landing pads (where roosting birds can cause airstrikes) are common clients of his, Iseppi said. Farms and vineyards have hired falconers to protect their crops from large flocks of starlings, and oil refineries in Texas, Montana and nearby Torrance, Calif., are increasingly turning to falconers to prevent starlings from fouling their facilities.

Three days a week, Iseppi shows up at the park with two of his three Harris’s Hawks (Their names are Maya, Melvin and Mowgli, for the “Jungle Book” character.). In the seven weeks Iseppi has been at the office park in Santa Monica, the number of gulls, pigeons and crows has dwindled from hundreds to a few, he says, and the remaining gulls have migrated away from the sidewalks and lunch tables— close to a preschool in the office park—to taking quick, nervous gulps from the pond before flying off.

On Saturday, Iseppi lets Mowgli loose and he flies off into a nearby tree, spooking another flock of lingering gulls. After a few minutes, Iseppi blows a whistle and Mowgli swoops back in (a little terrifyingly), and is rewarded with a piece of quail.

Ten feet away, a pair of mallard ducks bobs on the water.

“What’s kind of cool is how selective this is,” Iseppi says. “It makes my job more difficult [not to scare off the ducks, but] the managers like to have the ducks for the customers.”

How he manages it is a neat trick, because evolutionarily speaking, hawks are bred to hunt. It’s also in his best interests to avoid a blood-spattered mess in the middle of a corporate campus.

Part of it is down to the difference in species—ducks can dive into the water, while sea gulls cannot. Part is also down to Iseppi knowing his hawks’ body language and moods.

But he also keeps meticulous logs, weighing his hawks twice a day down to the tenth of a gram. He knows exactly how hungry they are at a given time, and when they are working, he makes sure they have been fed enough not to snap and kill a nuisance bird, although it sometimes happens.

“If a hawk is hungry, he’ll kill [the duck]; if he’s peckish, it’s much easier to get him to fly back to the glove for food,” Iseppi says. “It’s a weight management thing.”

On Saturday, Iseppi knows that Mowgli weighs about 725 grams. “If I cut his rations for 2 days, the next time he saw that duck, he’d attack it,” he adds.

Whenever land is cleared for development, predators are removed. In a perfect world, Iseppi says, developers and architects would plan ahead to avoid attracting birds with helipads close to beaches, or not put farms directly under migratory bird routes.

“Ideally, we’d live in a world where we could all just get along, that John Lennon world,” Iseppi muses.

Until then, he’ll be gladly flying his hawks over Southern California.