Capitola mulls using falcons to rid beach of gulls

By ROBYN MOORMEISTER
SENTINEL STAFF WRITER

    CAPITOLA - The city may soon arm itself with a new weapon in its fight against beach fouling seagulls. Picture (of  a falcon): Capitola city officials are considering using a falconer to control the seagull population on Capitola Beach.
    And this one flies, too.
    City officials are in preliminary talks to bring a falconer to Capitola Beach to scare off seagulls that are fouling nearby Soquel Creek, which empties at the beach. That has forced the city for years to post the beach with health-warning signs.
    The problem always has been embarrassing for the tourist-dependent town, but last month a Southern California environmental group ranked the beach No. 8 in a list of the state's 10 most polluted beaches.
    James Alamillo of Heal the Bay blamed the poor rating - based on the number of days the beach is posted with health warnings - partially on the gulls that converge at the creek mouth.
    Steve Jesberg, city public works director, said the bird problem is no secret.
    "The general consensus is that the bird population is a major contributor to pollution problems." Jesberg said. "It's a small beach so everything gets concentrated there. The lagoon is a great place to bathe for them, there are people on the beach, so there is a lot of food."
    At Thursday's council meeting, an audience member suggested falcons to deter the seagulls. And Jesberg said he already had been consulting with Santa Barbara falconer Jeff Diaz.
    "My specialty is improving water quality." Diaz said Friday. "I can even guarantee this method would improve water quality."
    Diaz has used his Saker falcons, an exotic, aggressive species used for hunting, to chase pigeons from a Space Shuttle under construction in Palmdale, to scare seagulls out of landfills in Santa Barbara, and to keep Stealth bombers and power plants free of pigeon droppings.
    It's the most natural method of bird abatement, he said, though there are only a half-dozen falconers in the United States who specialize in pest control.
    The rest of the roughly 4,000 U.S. falconers fly their birds for show and sport.
    Diaz said every job is different, but that the job at Capitola Beach might take six to eight months. He said he would need to use three falcons a day, eight hours a day, for a few months. After that initial bird blitz. The falcons would only be released a couple of hours a day for another few months to disperse the massive seagull flocks.
    He said the gulls would be forced back to "their natural path" - hunting anchovies and herring and scavenging for dead fish along the coast.
    A dog is used to scare the seagulls into the air. Picture: Alyxendria, Brittany and Jasmyne Lawson chase a flock of seagulls from Capitola Beach.
    The whole principle is based around this DNA, genetically coded predator-prey fear instinct," Diaz said. "That's the way it works, even with chicks, whether they're captive or wild."
    He said people don't have to worry about falcons swooping out of the sky and carrying off small children. They never go after people, Diaz said, and they're beautiful to watch while they're working.
    A potential problem with bird abatement in a populated area, Diaz said, is falcons getting tangled in power lines.
    Jesberg said he doesn't know how much the city would be willing to pay for a falconer. Diaz said he charges about $50 an hour.
    Diaz is scheduled to examine Soquel Creek and Capitola Beach today. Jesberg said he would like to bring a proposal for the use of a falconer before the council sometime in July.