Wanted: Lost Falcon

Bird is missing after pigeon-clearing mission at store in Cupertino

By David L. Beck
Mercury News

   Bianca the falcon, driven by lust, or maybe just attacked by crows, is missing somewhere in the wilds of Cupertino, and her boss is getting worried.
   Bianca, PJ, Jeff Diaz and the rest of the gang at Roninair were just winding up a gig chasing pigeons away from the Home Depot on De Anza Boulevard - "the worst pigeon problem in Northern California." According to Diaz - when Bianca disappeared.
   Bianca was last seen about 6 p.m. Wednesday flying over the Britannia Arms pub on De Anza Boulevard, according to Diaz. Her transmitter has gone silent.
    "She was on e of my best-trained ones," Diaz said. "We've been flying nearly every day in this Home Depot store parking lot, along the rooftop, and she's never flown off.
    "Either she saw a boy falcon - because it's springtime - or another hawk or falcon chased her." Diaz said. "Or she could have been attacked by a mob of crows and she just ranged too far and can't find her way back."
    A Los Altos native, Diaz, 43, now makes his home in Santa Barbara. One of a handful of professional falconers now engaged in ""environmental bird control," he deploys falcons and other raptors to drive away birds that humans often consider pests.
    Diaz boasts of rousting "tens of thousands of starlings" from a Sunoco chemical plant in Philadelphia, and scattering the sea gulls at a Santa Barbara County landfill that were polluting nearby Arroyo Quemada beach.
    Diaz's birds of prey also protect bigger birds of prey.
    They keep pigeons from fouling the Air Force's B-2 bombers parked in the California desert. The skin of the aircraft may be invisible to radar, but the droppings aren't.
    It's no secret how Bianca and others get their jobs done: "It works because prey species like pigeons, gulls, starlings are just naturally fearful of falcons in the air," said Glenn Stewart, a research associate and education coordinator at the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, "It is absolutely imprinted in their being to flee the scene. That's why you can put a falcon up for five minutes and every one of these pest birds flies away."
    Diaz even plans to pit eagles against truculent, populous Canada geese. Geese are prodigious polluters. He's proud of his crew. "These things put the fear of God in any birds," he said.
    But some raptor experts are skeptical about the long-term benefit of Roninair's methods. According to an e-mail from Brian Walton, who heads the Predatory Bird group, "It is a never-ending battle. It can work but gets very expensive."
    It was money that stood between Diaz and a job cleaning up Capitola Beach, where Soquel Creek, fouled by seabirds, flows into Monterey Bay. Steve Jesberg, the Capitola public works director, said he'd "love to try it sometime." But in lean times Diaz's price - $50,000 for a three-month summer season - just wouldn't fly.
    Of course there were other objections. "I must've gotten 30 to 50 e-mails," said Jesberg, "mainly from individuals either telling us how stupid an idea it was or how unfair it was to the sea gulls."
    Bianca weighs about 1.65 pounds and is about 18 inches long from head to tail. She's tan and beige "with a little bit of white." And she's wearing anklets.
    Diaz is convinced she's within a mile of the Home Depot store, but two days' search failed to find her. She's used to being fed every day at sunset = that's why the Roninair crew seldom kill the pigeons they attack - and in a few more days will revert to hunting. "There is a chance that she would come down to people, if she gets hungry enough," Diaz said.
    But here's a tip: Don't hold out your arm for her to perch on, unless you're wearing a leather gauntlet on it.