Member Spotlight – May 2018

  • by Will Holbert
  • May 25, 2018
  • Newsletters

A falcon employed to scare off seagulls stares into the camera.

Ancient Sport at Work in High Tech Heartland

Santa Clara Valley Water Turns to Falcons to Protect Groundwater Recharge Ponds From Seagulls

In the heart of the nation’s high-tech capital, an ancient practice is keeping homes free from one of nature’s scourges: seagull poop.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District has contracted with a licensed falconer to keep gulls from frequenting a set of groundwater recharge ponds in the Almaden Valley in South San Jose, near the water district’s headquarters. These ponds percolate water into groundwater basins and are an important part of Silicon Valley’s water supply picture.

The gulls, often hundreds thick over the ponds, have left their mark on nearby houses, making such a mess that homeowners sometimes can’t even use their backyards or go outside without fear of getting hit.

The three-month program is a trial to see how well the abatement effort works. Essentially, the falconer, Ken Elvin of Full Circle Falconry, uses five hawks and six falcons to harass the gulls.

With falconry and hunting licenses in hand from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and an abatement license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Elvin, his birds and his dogs work as a team whose coordinated movements rely on treats, family dynamics and a bit of radio telemetry.

The birds hunt in family groups, and Elvin is a part of that group. The main object is abatement, which in this case means harassment. However, once in a while one of Elvin’s birds will catch a gull. That helps to remind the gulls to fear the falcons and hawks and keeps the abatement work effective.

“Without the fear being set, the gulls lose respect for the other methods,” he said.

Elvin carefully maintains his birds’ weight for optimal health, and feeds and exercises them accordingly.
“These birds are all athletes. I weigh them and try to fly them every day to keep them in condition. Weighing them ensures we fly them when they’re hungry.”

Licensed falconer Ken Elvin of Full Circle Falconry.

When they come back to him, he’ll give them treats, usually part of a feeder bird he keeps in a pouch on his waist while flying his birds.

Their athleticism is apparent. One recent morning at the ponds, Elvin brought out his Harris Hawks and Lanner Falcon. The birds got a treat and flew high into the air, getting comfortable with the area from the sky, while his dog Dylan, a Vizsla, or Hungarian Pointer, sniffed around and got to know the area from the ground.

The birds are fast and detail-oriented. As the Lanner falcon stooped, or dove, to the lure Elvin held out, there was a rush of wind in his wake when he swooped past.

Falcons can accelerate and decelerate in the air, and Peregrine Falcons have been clocked at 240 miles per hour in a dive. Because they’re so fast, their mental processes are extremely quick. In this instance, “bird brain” is a compliment.

The telemetry comes in when Elvin flies the birds. He’ll put a transmitter on the birds’ legs before sending them off. Using telemetry, he can track his birds, which can sometimes fly far.

“A successful day of falconry is when we get our bird back,” he said.

Elvin’s dogs work with the birds and need to be sensitive to them, as each bird will react differently to the dogs. The dogs’ jobs are to sit with the birds to protect them if they catch something and to flush, or scare up, the quarry.

While Elvin has been a falconer for 15 years, it’s not a common pursuit here. Elvin noted that in the United States, about one in 980,000 people is a falconer. In California, that number grows to about one in 450,000, but in the Middle East, where people have practiced falconry for thousands of years, about one in five people is a falconer.

Elvin got into it when he helped out a friend who was doing abatement work. He got hooked, apprenticed for two years, and now he does abatement work. He works a lot in vineyards, and also appears at renaissance faires and different educational opportunities to promote conservation and raptor biology.

“Falconry is really a world heritage,” he said.

SCVWD Water Resources Supervisor Jerry Sparkman started this falconry pilot program to see if it would work after hearing about the landfill using a similar program.

Bird abatement is nothing new to the water district. For about 10 years, the district has had a goose abatement program around the Page, Sunnyoaks, Budd and Main ponds. Fecal matter was a big problem there, and the district hired a person who uses dogs to chase off geese, which are not too threatened by falcons or hawks. Sparkman noted that this program, which has been in effect for about 10 years, has helped out substantially.

The falconry program will be evaluated when it ends later this spring, and the water district will decide how to proceed. So far, the program appears to be working, but there’s been no official decision made by the district, said SCVWD spokesman Marty Grimes.

In the meantime, Elvin and his team of birds and dogs will continue keeping the gulls at bay.

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