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Trained Falcons Keep Birds Out of the Trash

Joe Suffredini gets his Harris hawk ready for Chiquita Canyon Landfill | Dennis Nishi
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Dating back to ancient China, the artful practice of falconry has a resurgent role in modern society. Birds of prey are being used to defend our trash—from other birds.

Waste disposal companies are required by law to keep birds away from landfills since birds that eat trash can subsequently pollute nearby water sources. The problem is that automated bird abatement systems such as horns don’t work very well. Seagulls quickly learn that these empty threats are little more than noise.

Dealing with the avian dilemma is good business for Master falconer Joe Suffredini who staffs a crew of 20 eager raptors. Suffredini is part of a small but growing niche of falconers for hire that keep birds away from wine grapes, sunbathing resort tourists and jet airplane turbines.

Falconer with his Harris hawk
Joe Suffredini has a  quiet moment with his Harris hawk. By Dennis Nishi | Dennis Nishi

For his daily job at Chiquita Sanitary Landfill in Castaic, Calif., Suffredini typically takes three birds to the top of the tallest trash heap and sends out a Lanner falcon or Harris hawk (only one at a time since falcons are territorial) to clear the earth and sky of anything that sits below the raptor on the food chain. Seagulls are hardwired to flee from predators—lest they be eaten—and will immediately make midair course corrections when they see Suffredini’s Toyota Tacoma pickup truck driving up to the site.

The birds also know when Suffredini is scheduled to arrive, which is why all good falconers will vary their schedules to break any memorized pattern. “The birds can tell time and will sometimes show up before I get here in the morning. They’ll also come back if I’m not around for a while, but they learn quickly when I do appear,” says Suffredini who emphasizes that the abatement program is nonlethal.

Falconer Joe Suffredini gets Millie the falcon ready. By Dennis Nishi | Dennis Nishi

Although falcons can easily a kill seagull, Suffredini keeps his birds distracted with a lure that he swings overhead like a bolo. The falcons pursue the lure because they know that they'll be rewarded with a fistful of restaurant-grade pheasant after the job is done. “They are reward driven. But I do know that they love the game. I can tell,” says Suffredini.    

Music: "Departures" by Airtone feat. spek, Creative Commons.

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