This story appears in volume 33 of Smith Journal, on sale now.
It’s Monday morning and the Los Angeles freeways are as snarled as ever. Adam Baz is driving his truckful of co-workers across town to the Burbank headquarters of Warner Bros Music. Then he’ll take the team up to the roof, where they’ll get on with the task at hand: scaring the bejesus out of pigeons.
Baz’s falconry business, Hawk on Hand, grew out of his work in wildlife conservation. As a qualified avian biologist, he’d always had a fascination with raptors, but it wasn’t until he heard a radio interview with another falconer that he realised the possibilities of using a small team of predators to solve urban pest problems. Or, as he puts it, “using larger birds to scare smaller birds.”
Though he uses the training and techniques of falconry, Baz is keen to point out that he’s not a falconer in the traditional sense. “Falconry is a hunting sport,” he explains. “It has been for 4000 years. It’s the pursuit of wild prey in a natural setting using a trained bird of prey. I just apply the principles to help businesses manage their bird problems. I'm basically doing glorified pest control.”
Over the next few hours, Baz will release the birds one by one. Each species has a different skill. “Falcons are aerial hunters, so they spend most of their time in flight. Hawks hunt either from a perch or from a soar, so they tend to stick closer to the ground. The falcon, if I unleashed it, could fly up 3000 feet in the air and basically disappear.”
By introducing raptors into the habitats of birds that are justifiably terrified of them, Baz says he’s simply exploiting naturally occurring predator–prey dynamics. He doesn’t want his bird to eat the pigeons; he just wants the pigeons to move on.
“For better or for worse, pigeons, crows and starlings have adapted to urban development. They do well in areas like food courts or landfills, where there are high concentrations of human resources. But it’s not necessarily a healthy place for them to be.”
A recent report from Cornell University showed that three billion birds have disappeared from the global ecosystem over the past five decades. Questions of which birds have a right to perch on which building might seem fair, in light of these numbers, but Baz sees his commercial work as a balancing tool. One small cog in a healthy avian ecosystem.
“The species that become problematic are invasive species,” he says. “Starlings displace native songbirds by evicting them from their nests. Bluebirds or chickadees or small woodpeckers get bullied out of their nesting ground. I don't feel bad about the fact that I basically make my living chasing foreign species away.”
Baz views the growing natural population of predator birds in LA as a sign of a healthier urban predator-prey dynamic, and a message of hope. At a time when other species are disappearing, it’s not all doom and extinction. With a little help, strong species can recover.
“Most falconers don't fly in an urban environment,” he says. “One of the reasons I enjoy flying in the city is that I can see a lot of wild raptors have taken up residence. Peregrine falcons were virtually extirpated from North America in the ’60s and ’70s. Now they're nesting on bridges and skyscrapers all across the continent.“
Still, keeping introduced birds at bay in a sprawling city is a never-ending task. Baz and his raptors will chase the pigeons away this morning, but it won’t be the last time Warner Bros sees them. “You can't just bring a hawk or a falcon to a rooftop for a week and solve your problem forever,” he says. “There will always be new birds that will try to colonise your site. You have to remind them, with some regularity, that there is a hawk to be reckoned with.