There is a war on in our skies. Tiffany White, master falconer, is a general in this war. The enemies know her. They recognize her: the big brown eyes, the freckle-dusted cheeks and the curly locks. But she knows them, too.
Displaying impressive avian wonkishness, White speaks of birds the way most people do of friends or family. Closest to her heart is Morpheus, a five-year-old Harris hawk. Like people, not all birds are as reliable as Morpheus – such as his mate, Morgana Pendragon.
Like an exasperated mother, White rolls her eyes as she discusses Morgana, who she says is “crazy.” Given the size and sharpness of Morgana’s talons and beak – female Harris hawks are on average 35 percent larger than males, with an average wingspan of between three and four feet – Morgana probably isn’t an animal you’d want sitting near your face.
“There is no accounting for taste,” White said with a shrug. “Morpheus is in love with her. I keep her around because he won’t eat if she’s not.”
Whether it’s acting as marriage counselor to feathered creatures or cleaning mouse guts off a wall, it’s all just another day in the life of a falconer.
White first got into falconry while working as a biologist for the state of Florida in the early ’90s. Although falconry was her passion in those days, it wasn’t yet her profession. She made the leap into falconry-based bird abatement, and her war with the great-tailed grackle and other pest bird species, in 2015, when she and partner Sally Knight formed Sonoran Desert Falconry, a non-profit, and Sonoran Desert Bird Abatement, an LLC.
Falconry – the use of birds of prey by humans for hunting – has been practiced throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East for thousands of years. Infamous practitioners include the conquerors Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn, in addition to bigamist King Henry VIII.
Falconry-based bird abatement, industry slang for using birds of prey to drive away pests, is much younger. A number of wineries throughout California adopted the practice in the ’90s to combat the loss of millions of dollars’ worth of grapes to European starlings and other pests each year. Resorts and golf courses also adopted the practice, as have some airports and other locations where errant birds can pose serious hazards. There’s even a program in France to train eagles to attack terrorist drones.
Threats from Arizona’s skies come mainly in the form of beaks and bowel movements. “A grackle had grabbed a lady’s piece of bacon and, I don’t know why, she decided she wanted it back,” White explained. “She tried to grab it from the grackle, and it pecked her finger. I think that was the incident that got us hired.”
Sonoran works with the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort, where they also offer weekly Hawk Talks. With White currently in Yuma working on an exciting new project, Knight currently runs the talks, along with Jeffrey Trainer, Sonoran’s director of operations. They answer questions, pose for pictures with their birds and discuss falconry with the general public.
“People don’t get close to birds of prey, especially owls, because they’re out after dark,” Knight said. “A lot of people put rodenticides out to get rid of desert mice and rats and all that. It’s very harmful to the ecosystem. People don’t think of how that can affect birds and other animals, so it’s nice to educate them.”
Through their non-profit arm, Sonoran offers educational programming for schools in low-income neighborhoods. They usually bring a hawk, a falcon and an owl and discuss the differences among them. They educate students about conservation and potential career paths working with animals or in farming. For many students, these visits are their first interactions with such animals.
“Most kids know more about drones right now than they know about any type of bird of prey,” Trainer said. White in particular enjoys these settings because she provides a unique role model, being a business-owning woman of color – and one who also happens to have a badass bird perched on her fist.
While White and the other handlers at Sonoran all have strong feelings about their birds and the environment, the great-tailed grackles at the Princess resort in particular seem to have strong feelings in return, if not exactly reciprocal ones. “They’re a trip, and they’re smart, too,” Tiffany said of her bird bêtes noires. “All I have to do is walk through there, and birds are screaming at me. I’m not kidding – they’ll actually take things and drop them on my head.”
Sonoran’s largest contract to date, and the reason for White’s recent move to Yuma, came after a phone call from Paula Rivadeneira, a food safety and wildlife extension specialist at the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension in Yuma.
Agriculture added $7.3 billion to Arizona’s economy in 2014. Farming is particularly vital to Yuma, the winter green capital of the US, which produces 90 percent of our country’s leafy vegetables between November and March.
Earlier this year, an E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce grown there led to five deaths and left hundreds sick across 35 states. A bacterium primarily living in animals’ digestive tracts, E. coli is thought to spread to crops when pests defecate on or near fields. Flood irrigation then spreads the bacteria.
Farmers use a number of methods to deter birds from their fields, everything from scarecrows to Mylar streamers to acoustic cannons, lasers and poisons. Rivadeneira, who has a PhD in biology, thought there must be a better way.
“I’m a wildlife biologist, and my goal is really to help the farmers figure out a more natural and economical way to keep wildlife out of their fields,” Rivadeneira said. “In most cases, they’re using lots of different deterrents, including having people standing in the fields to keep animals out. That just didn’t make sense to me.”
While in the past Americans have tended to view nature and business as diametrically opposed, Rivadeneira is one of a growing number who believe natural and human systems can be made to function in better harmony. She began researching alternative approaches to pest management when she first learned about falconry-based pest abatement.
“If the vineyards can do it, why can’t we?” Rivadeneira asked herself. She called falconers around the state about her idea, but found only White willing to talk and help. Rivadeneira asked White if she would be willing to serve as the falconer for a grant proposal she was preparing, and White said yes.
When the Center for Produce Safety awarded them a $380,000 grant to run a two-year pilot project, White immediately began packing her bags and assembling a team of birds. Rivadeneira fixed up an old RV, with a gift of new tires from a friendly farmer, and set up the Super Cool Agricultural Testing and Teaching Lab, SCATT Lab for short, where White and the other handlers stayed during the first season.
“They lived out there in the field, and they went out every morning at sunrise and flew their birds,” Rivadeneira said. “They would make rounds all day, checking to make sure that there were no nuisance birds in the fields, and they collected data for me at the same time.”
At the end of the first season, they had a 97 percent success rate for keeping birds out of the fields. Despite this, some farmers remain skeptical, wondering if wide-scale adoption of the techniques would be economically feasible.
“There are always going to be people that have doubt because they’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time and think that, even if it doesn’t work perfectly, it works good enough,” Rivadeneira said. “We’re hoping that we can convince some of those growers to just try it.”
However, with the falconry method’s effectiveness so clear and the need for keeping pests out so vital to human and industry health, Rivadeneira believes this innovation will continue to expand. She hopes one day to see a full-time agricultural falconry center established in Yuma, which she says would go a long way toward making the environmentally friendly practice accessible to as many farmers as possible.
Another project Rivadeneira and Sonoran are partnering on is the installation of owl boxes – free-standing structures suitable for barn owl nesting – throughout farms to help control rodent populations. While attending an invitation-only international barn owl conference (which must have been a real hoot), Rivadeneira encountered a group of Israeli scientists who had been pioneering owl-based rodent abatement for decades.
Rivadeneira learned a number of things from the Israelis, most crucially the need to set up boxes in much higher densities. On average, barn owls eat around a third of their body weight in rodents every night, or around six mice. Since barn owls are not territorial, meaning they don’t defend a set area against other members of their species, they can live in close quarters as long as there is sufficient food supply.
When mice populations decline, the owls will naturally tend to disperse over time.
While we will never completely win the war against animals such as grackles and mice, perhaps someday we’ll come to understand that, like it or not, we depend on natural systems. Perhaps, instead of going it alone, we will – as any goose flying north knows – appreciate the value of working in formation with other species.
“I think for farmers it’s really important that they do this because they’re producing our food outside in the world, and there has to be a way to live and grow naturally with animals around us,” Rivadeneira said.