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Falcons, hawk ward off gulls and pigeons at Santa Monica complex

After birds became a nuisance by littering the office campus with droppings and bones, a company brought in its avian predators. But it's their fierce appearance, not their talons, that keeps the site gull-free.

August 13, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Fred Seaman goes eye-to-eye with his falcon Johnny Depp at The Water Garden in Santa Monica. The office complex hired the falconer to divert seagulls and pigeons from the area using predatory birds.
Fred Seaman goes eye-to-eye with his falcon Johnny Depp at The Water Garden… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Swooping low over the office courtyard's pond, the lone gull was watching like a hawk.

In fact, the gull was watching for a hawk, not to mention the three falcons perched next to the man-made lake in the center of the Water Garden in Santa Monica.

The gull let out a loud screech and kept on flying when it spotted the four birds of prey.

"He's letting the other gulls know we're still here," said Fred Seaman, a falconer hired by the office complex to rid its 17-acre site of messy gulls and pigeons. "This is falconry-based bird abatement — we stop short of actually killing anything."

It didn't take much for gulls and pigeons to get the message. At lunchtime when office workers scattered around the pond to munch on sandwiches, not a single one was in sight.

"We're here to haze and harass the gulls. The beach is over there, a trash transfer station is over here and this water is in between," Seaman said. "They eat the trash that people have had in their cans for a week then come here to drink and take a bath."

Seaman, 53, of Cambria, was in the first week of what could be a two-month effort by his Airstrike Bird Control company to retrain a generation of gulls to hang out somewhere other than the Water Garden.

"The first morning I got here there were 40 gulls. Some days they've had as many as 100 of them here. This pond is a place they feel safe — it's wide enough for them to get a running start to take off," he said of the 1 1/2-acre lake.

"But the grassy areas and sidewalks were white from their droppings. There are bone fragments from their scavenging that end up on the ground and in the water. Building management had to tell people not to dangle their feet in the water because they couldn't put enough chlorine in it to clean it."

Gulls and pigeons "have intensely good eyesight," and they know to stay away from hawks and falcons, which are natural enemies, he said.

Seaman keeps his birds tethered to 10-pound blocks to keep them from flying off and landing in harm's way in the congested area around 26th Street and Olympic Boulevard.

He allows older ones to fly in the evening and early morning, however. They are equipped with tiny transmitters that Seaman can use to track them if they get disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings of Santa Monica. But they always respond to his call when it's time to take up their positions around the courtyard pond, he said.

They also respond to their names. The lanner falcon is named Marlon Brando because "he's got a big personality for a little bird," Seaman said. Audrey Hepburn is a Barbary falcon. Johnny Depp is half gyrfalcon and half saker falcon, and Mia Farrow is a Harris' hawk.

They spend their nights in large perch boxes in the Water Garden's subterranean parking garage. Since they are not allowed to actually catch gulls and pigeons, they are fed quail meat.

Operators of the Water Garden declined to reveal how much the bird abatement is costing. But falcon- and hawk-watching has become a popular diversion for the 2,200 employees of the 75 firms with offices there.

"I like this — it was a good call," said banker Dan Morihiro. "The novelty of this is more important than getting rid of the pigeons, and it's better than paying a bunch of kids to shoot at them with BB guns."

Jane Mullaney, a computer artist with a video game company, declared the birds "absolutely gorgeous. This is nature's way of taking care of a problem — predators and prey."

Kimberly Hall, an administrative assistant for a glass manufacturer, stopped to ask Seaman if her 12-year-old cat was in danger from a hawk that frequents her West Los Angeles neighborhood. He advised her to keep the pet indoors.

And the profession of falconry may have gotten a recruit from Craig Harris, an automobile technician who spotted the falcons and hawk while walking his dog the night before at the Water Garden. He ended up chatting with Seaman for 1 1/2 hours.

"He told me he'd let this one fly this morning between 7 and 9 so I got here early," said Harris, 30. Seaman let Harris put on a leather glove, and Marlon perched on his hand. Falconers licensed by federal and state authorities find jobs with their birds in places that range from garbage dumps to high-end wineries.

"I'm going to look into a falconry internship. It would take two years, but I'm intrigued by these birds," Harris said.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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