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Fear the falcon

A man and his raptors take on Washington's dump scavengers.

 

Half gyrfalcon, half peregrine, The Beast is over two feet tall and weighs more than four pounds. With her broad chest and rounded wings, she cuts a hulking figure in the late afternoon light, perched on Jimmy Bathke's glove. The trouble is that she seems content to stay there.

"C'mon, Beast," Bathke urges. "Let's go."

The Beast regards him with regal disdain.

"Fine, have it your way." Bathke jounces his arm, and The Beast takes off. She flies a few yards, quickly and powerfully, before landing in the dirt here at the Roosevelt Regional Landfill. That alone sends the dozens of gulls that were picking through garbage into a whirling, squawking panic.

Bathke, 60, a master falconer, is lean and long-haired, with a thick horseshoe mustache and soul patch whittled to a point. His manner is loose, friendly, earnest, occasionally wry and slightly befuddled. The Beast, so named because of her size and disposition, is one of four falcons employed by Bathke's business, Fear the Falcon. They spend 10 to 15 days a month at the landfill making life miserable for the gulls, ravens and other birds that would otherwise feast lavishly on the refuse.

At over 2,500 acres, Washington's largest private landfill receives more than 2 million tons of trash annually, from as far away as Alaska. Managers thought its location on a plateau above the Columbia River and a couple of miles inland would discourage gulls. But such hopes ran counter to biological predilection. Thousands of gulls descended. They massed around heavy equipment, screaming at the operators and driving them nuts. They carried garbage to nearby parks, flouting federal containment regulations. A worker was pulled from the line to blast away with cracker shells and bottle rockets. "The birds weren't scared at all," says Art Mains, the landfill's environmental manager. "That was when we started to look at bird abatement."

Bird abatement is the use of hawks and falcons to scare pests away from property. The practice began at military air bases and commercial airports, where bird collisions can cause expensive damage, even bringing down planes. Bathke trains his falcons to dive on a leather lure that he swings in circles from a long pole. They don't have to actively hunt to be a deterrent. "There's nothing like a predator to scare the crap out of a gull," Bathke says.

Originally from Oakland, California, Bathke started raising falcons more than 30 years ago, when his parents purchased a steer, and the rancher threw in a young kestrel. Bathke raised it, unaware that, without the requisite paperwork, he was breaking the law. (He has since "legaled up.")

He was living in Santa Rosa in 2000, when he got a call from a falconer in Spokane, Washington, asking if he wanted to start a trial abatement program at Roosevelt. His first day was miserable: early August, 102 degrees Fahrenheit, 45 mph winds, dust, garbage and gulls everywhere. He stood in the lee of giant trash mountains in a state of existential ambivalence, while heavy equipment crushed and compacted all around. But his birds drove the gulls away. And when the hordes returned the next day, they did it again.

For abatement to work, the harassment must at first be intensive; Bathke lived out of his van for four months, hazing gulls daily until they stopped coming back. "I had a cycle," he says. "Four months here, two months in California, four months here." This went on for almost two years before he moved to Washington for good. Now, he lives about an hour away in Goldendale, a small town where he also owns an auto body shop. His home is a veritable menagerie, with pigeons, falcons, hawks, spaniels and a cat; goshawk eggs sit in an incubator on his dining room table.

"It's interesting work, but you go where the jobs are," Bathke says, as the trash-perfumed breeze ruffles The Beast's feathers. The birds can be temperamental; sometimes, rather than flying to the lure, they light out for more open spaces. Bathke has spent hours, and occasionally days, following them in his van, radio antennae held aloft, listening for the faint beep! of a tracking device.

And then there are the days when they don't feel like flying, choosing instead to kak! at his feet. After several minutes of this from The Beast, Bathke relents and holds out his arm. The Beast hops up and glowers at him, baleful and extraordinary. "What's with you today?" he asks her softly, offering a wing of raw chicken. The Beast grabs it with her talons and, earned or not, tears it to shreds.