Hard-working hawks keeping skies over city landfill clear

Hard-working hawks keeping skies over city landfill clear

Though just five years old, Aria will work an eight-hour shift every day of the week until she retires around age 10.

Her office is a dump, but the Harris hawk loves her job.

"It's not work. They're just chasing gulls around all day. It's a big party for them," said Stephen Bucciarelli, Aria's boss.

In 2010, the City of Ottawa hired Bucciarelli's company, Predator Bird Services, to clear the air above the Trail Road landfill of troublesome gulls.

The excrement produced by the resident colony — the noisy scavengers numbered around 6,000 at the time — was contributing to alarming levels of phosphorous in nearby storm water.

 High phosphorus levels cause excessive algae growth, and consequently low oxygen levels in lakes and rivers downstream.

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'Flying Labrador retriever'

The gulls posed another problem: with the municipal landfill just 20 kilometres southwest of the Ottawa International Airport, there was growing concern about the potential for dangerous bird strikes — mid-air collisions between birds and passing aircraft. 

Bucciarelli's hawks also pull duty at the airport itself, keeping runways clear of pesky gulls.

The company has a permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service allowing its raptors to catch and kill the gulls, but the program's real aim is deterrence.

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Predator Bird Services, based in London, Ont., with contracts from the Florida Keys to Fort McMurray, Alta., also uses goshawks, snowy owls and even bald eagles, but Bucciarelli said Aria and the other Harris hawks, which he likens to a "flying Labrador retriever," have the perfect temperament for the job.

"They're friendly with people, and it's easy to manage their emotions, too. They don't get too stressed out about anything," he said.

Human company

Aria and her partner — they typically work in pairs — have some human company at the landfill: falconers Stephanie Boardman and Jessica Farsi.

"In the wild, they hunt as packs," Boardman explained. "She considers me maybe her hunting partner."

When the workday is done, Boardman and Farsi take the hawks home with them each night. A diet of restaurant-grade quail keeps the hawks content and more interested in chasing gulls than dining on them.

Each morning, the hawks are chauffeured back to work in a white pickup truck. Their handlers often crank down the window and free the raptors while the truck is still rolling so the hawks can get a jump on the wary gulls, who have come to recognize the vehicle.

For the hawks' human partners, the days can be long, and the working conditions far from ideal.

"It can be long hours, especially when it's cold," Bucciarelli acknowledged.

Then there's the smell.

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An ancient art

But this ancient art still works. Within six months of the hawks' arrival, the gull colony at the landfill had dwindled to about 200. These days, some 40 stubborn scavengers remain year-round.

The ongoing problem is the flocks of migratory birds stopping for a snack on their way down south, unaware of who rules the roost at the landfill.

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"We need to keep the [hawks] there for that migration period," said Jason Staniforth, manager of waste processing and disposal at Trail Road.

The rest of the year, the $100,000-per-year landfill job is a "maintenance project," Bucciarelli said. But he's not worried the work will dry up: if his hawks ever retired, the gulls would be back in no time.