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Save the planes, scare the birds

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Jim Tigan and his bird Mac in Monterey, California. January 2005. (Kate Marden)

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Jim Tigan takes the hood off his falcon Mac in Monterey, California. 2006. (Kate Marden)

Birds will scatter at a loud noise: a gun, a noisemaker, the sound of another bird in distress. But nothing scares them more than the silent form of a falcon diving out of the sky at 150 mph.

When they see the falcon flying around, “it’s like if you were swimming and you saw the great white shark,” says Mark Adam, the president and founder of Falcon Environmental, a Canadian company that provides falcons to clear the skies above JFK International Airport in New York.

“It’s going to be the most effective bird control by far at any bird control site,” he added. “We’re talking about a mile in one direction and a mile in the other.”

That pitch may win him contracts in more airports on the East and West coasts of the United States. Forget the noisemakers, the guns and the poison, he says. All he needs to clear the runways around an airport is a falcon and 15 minutes every hour.

Airports in the United States traditionally try to control birds with a combination of radar detection, guns or noisemakers, removing food sources or with poison. But since US Airways flight 1549 was disabled by a bird strike and crash-landed in the Hudson River in January, commercial falconers like Adam are finding airports more open to their sales pitch.

Falconry saves the environment and requires no extra attention from air traffic control, Adam says. It’s also more effective than other artificial methods to which the birds quickly adapt.

“The falcon itself is a natural predator to the birds and the natural relationship is of predator to prey,” he says. “So when the falcon is at prey, they don’t want to be munched.”

Jim Tigan sees airport falconry as the future. He began commercial falconry, or bird abatement, on the East Coast, winning contracts to clear Air Force bases from Kansas to Kyrgyzstan. But during the George W. Bush administration, he says, larger companies began winning the contracts and subcontracting to companies that would use scare tactics, shooting blanks or using noisemakers.

Tigan has been doing this work for seven years and started his company, Tactical Avian Predators, five years ago. A disabled Gulf War veteran, pilot and flight engineer, he remembers taking off from McClellan Air Force base in the 1989 when a barn owl hit the plane, forcing him to return to the base immediately.

JFK and some military airports have embraced falconry for bird abatement during the past 10 years, but it can be an expensive option. Tigan says an average falconry contract for a military airfield is around $250,000 a year. But that’s relatively inexpensive compared to the damage they can help prevent. Since 2000, 31 civilian aircraft have been destroyed by bird strikes, killing 17 people, according to statistics compiled for the FAA, which estimates that bird strikes cost U.S. airlines $37 million every year.

Falconry is more popular outside the United States, but it’s growing here as a hobby as well as commercially. GeeGee Clark is the booking accountant at Northwoods Ltd., a falconer equipment company based in Rainier, Wash., that sells everything from leashes to falcon sperm for insemination. She says their customer base has increased 28 percent over the past five years.

But in the United States, where falconry has a minimal following, compared to many other parts of the world, even people who are interested in using falcons for bird abatement don’t understand how involved the process can be. Rob Waite has been hawking for more than 30 years, beginning in his teens in England, where the sport has always been more popular than in the States. He has been an instructor at a resort in Vermont that has been offering falconry lessons for 18 years. Golf course owners, vineyard owners and homeowners have started calling his company to clear Canada geese.

“They sort of think that if you show up once with a hawk, the birds just take off and don’t come back again,” he said. “Actually they’ll come back a few hours later. It’s a real financial commitment to use falconry for bird abatement.”

When Tigan began losing Air Force contracts to larger companies, he turned toward commercial non-aeronautical bird clearance. One of his clients now is a blueberry farm. A blueberry field can bring in a million dollars plus for 150 acres, 10 to 12 percent of which is usually lost to birds. He also recently finished negotiating a contract with the city of San Francisco to help clear ducks from one of the city’s main drinking water reservoirs.

Tigan, a master falconer, says he has tried for two years he has tried to convince Sacramento Airport to use falcons for bird clearance, but at first he got no response from airport officials.

Then, US Airways Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River after colliding with what investigators suspect were Canada geese.

Tigan says he approached California State Sen. David Cox after the crash and explained how airplane safety could be improved: Keep the sound system, but add the falcons.

“Turn those doggone noisemakers off right before you fly the falcon,” Tigan said. “Instead of habituating the species to the idea that there’s no consequence from the noisemaker, you teach them the consequence from the noisemaker is a falcon.”

Forty-five minutes after leaving the senator’s office, he says the airport biologist called and said, “Tell me about this falconry.”

Bob Young, JFK Airport’s aeronautical manager, says that falconry is only one tool in an arsenal of wildlife control that they use. But at LaGuardia, where US Airways 1549 originated, there is less possibility of control. LaGuardia is a true inner-city airport, where people plant whatever they want–and therefore attract several species of birds–just a half-mile from airport property.

LaGuardia is not exploring falconry as an option for bird control, airport officials say, because they need to be convinced that falcons can clear geese, the airport’s main problem.

Falcon Environmental has received inquiries from two other airports on the East Coast, which Adam declined to name, and his company is competing with Tigan for a contract with Sacramento International.

So if you find yourself flying in or out of Sacramento, keep your eyes open for a man standing on the side of the airfield with a bird on his fist.

(E-mail: aas2176@columbia.edu)