What began as a bird abatement program turned into an attraction
From a guestroom balcony at Terranea Resort, a young family gets an up-close look at one of nature’s most spectacular flyers.
A Peregrine Falcon skirts the tops of palm fronds that surround the resort’s swimming pool and comes to rest on a nearby railing. With a short call from falconer Joe Roy, the bird takes flight over sunbathers and lands on Roy’s outstretched gloved-hand, which holds a rabbit carcass.
Normally this is the kind of thing reserved for zoos and wild animal parks, but the guests at this cliffside resort in Rancho Palos Verdes get a wildlife show almost daily. And it’s not just for entertainment. The falcons and hawks flown here play a practical purpose. They keep the seagulls away.
“Initially there were so many seagulls that nobody wanted to be in the pool or the spa,” says Roy, a lifelong falconer. “You can’t just go out and kill them. Using falcons is a great way to coerce them to go to other places.”
Birds of prey – also called raptors – such as falcons, hawks and owls hunt small rodents, but they also attack other birds. And the seagulls know this. A Peregrine Falcon can dive at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. Airplane manufacturers reportedly study the wing dynamics that allow them to cut through the atmosphere so easily.
“If they can get their jets to perform and their pilots to be able to withstand the Gs these guys can perform at, they would be on a whole other level,” Roy says. “These guys have evolved over eons of time to fly at high speed, and they are really good at it. That’s why seagulls don’t want to be in their space.”
At Terranea, none of the pesky gulls or ravens is harmed. It’s by flying in patterns that mimic hunting that the birds get the message. Alternatives include loud noises or poison, both of which wouldn’t work at a public resort.
“Finally America is catching on to the idea that we can use birds as a non-lethal means to take care of wildlife situations that might otherwise be untenable,” Roy says.
The raptors successfully chased the resident gulls away when Terranea first opened. Now it’s a matter of maintenance. On a recent flight, one intrepid seagull quickly changed course when it saw the hawk perched on a third-story rain gutter.
“It’s kind of like if you knew where the most dangerous thugs hang out,” Roy says. “Why come here where it’s more dangerous?”
The falcon experience
Roy and the other falconers that make the rounds at Terranea work for Aerial Solutions Inc., a company that specializes in bird abatement at coastal resorts, landfills and agricultural settings. They typically fly either a falcon or a hawk, while an owl also makes an appearance. But they don’t fly the owl. Its mere presence is enough to scare the wits out of certain birds.
Almost from the outset at Terranea, having falconers on site represented more than a pest control service. They quickly became an attraction. Soon visitors were requesting the so-called owl room, which earned the moniker for its vantage point to watch the falconers.
“The falcons are a huge attraction, not just here but any venue,” says Roy, who looks the part of a falconer with his long hair tied back. “You roll through with live birds and they are like magnets.”
The falconers at Terranea never go too long on the grounds without gathering a crowd, which results in little nature talks throughout the day. It’s something the guests have really enjoyed, said Jessie Pound, senior public relations manager.
“We had so much interest in the falcons that we wanted to make it available to our guests for an extended period of time so they could learn as much as they could and really have that experience while they are here,” Pound said.
Mary Sabol, who lives nearby, recently stopped to speak with Roy along with some friends as they headed toward a beachside trail. Roy had parked the golf cart that all the falconers use on the property near the cliffside. The cart has several perches where the birds rest along with a few cages. Most of the time Roy also travels with his black Labrador retriever.
“It’s wonderful,” Sabol said. “We all live near here and we walk here all the time. I’ve learned something every time. He loves what he does and you can tell he loves what he does. They are beautiful birds and we appreciate it.”
The falcon experience is now part of the resort’s Discovery Center where visitors can book a whole range of activities, said Marissa Edwards, who directs the center and holds the unique title of “Director of Fun.”
“It’s been amazing to watch guests’ perception of recreation and what they want to do,” Edwards said. “It’s very ecologically focused here. You get in this beautiful space and feel this is what you should be doing.”
For thousands of years humans have used falcons and other birds of prey to hunt. Modern falconers still handle their birds much the same way as the earliest hunters.
The raptors need just the right amount of food, measured each day along with the weight of the birds themselves. Feed them too much and they become sluggish. Feed them too little and they could fly away, Roy explains. If that happens, the birds each have a radio transponder attached to their ankle so they can be tracked.
When at rest the birds wear tiny leather hoods, which almost look like crash helmets. The darkness, it turns out, keeps them calm.
“At some point in that historic past, before there were books, we found that by covering their eyes, these birds get calm and very relaxed,” Roy says. “When it’s dark they know there are nocturnal predators that could be a threat to them.”
The falconers at Terranea each take care of their own birds at home where they’ve created backyard sanctuaries.
“You can’t just go on vacation and have someone take care of them,” Roy says. “Wherever I go, they go.”
The falconers raise the birds almost from the time they hatch, with the goal being to still let them exhibit their natural hunting instincts.
“We just let them include us in that part of their lives,” said Roy, who commonly takes his birds on camping trips where he uses the birds to hunt jackrabbits and squirrels. The catch he stores in the freezer as food for the birds throughout the year.
Randi Johnson, another falconer at Terranea, has worked with raptors for the past six years. She said she came to the sport through personal experience with people who also flew the birds to hunt.
“I ended up meeting people who were doing it, and I was fortunate that I found someone who wanted to teach me,” Johnson said.
Along with other jobs for Aerial Solutions, Roy performs educational events at schools and wildlife centers. There’s a chance he could inspire someone else to pursue falconry in the same way he was introduced to the sport at the age of nine. That’s when a man who worked for wildlife parks moved in next door.
“When he told me he had a hawk that could fly and come back I was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’ He said, ‘You want to come watch this hawk fly?’ So I did. And I never stopped,” Roy said. “The more I’ve learned about them – and this is like four decades later – my enthusiasm for them is as high as it’s ever been.”
On a recent afternoon, Roy calls the falcon back from a second floor balcony when it catches the attention of a group of young kids by the pool. He can see the excitement on their faces as the falcon flies at Terranea. PEN