Hunched on their perches on a broad lawn overlooking the ocean, four falcons and two hawks formed a circle. A large Eurasian eagle owl was perched nearby.
With their feet tethered to the perches, and their sharp eyes intent on every move, the birds of prey gave the sun-splashed resort a bit of a Gothic feel. Guests strolling along walkways stopped to stare, or snap pictures, or put questions to falconer, Jorge Herrera.
But the birds of prey were doing their job. Herrera’s trained birds were hired to frighten away “pest” birds — mainly gulls — that once plagued the high-end resort, flapping onto outdoor tables, stealing french fries, even carrying off small plates, and sometimes making a mess of the rooftops with their droppings.
“We’ve found butter dishes on the roof,” said resort manager Todd Orlich. “For some of our guests, the birds can be a little frightening — especially to children.”
And, Orlich and Herrera agree, bringing in the raptors worked. As if to prove the point, a pair of gulls tipped their wings toward the pool area as they flew overhead, then tipped away again. And although the Laguna coast’s gull traffic can rival that on Pacific Coast Highway at rush hour, there wasn’t another one anywhere in sight.
“All I do is literally get paid to train my birds on the property,” said Herrera, 29, as Ivy, a female saker falcon, gripped his glove with her talons.
Putting the birds through their paces on the hotel’s lawn is enough to frighten away gulls, pigeons and other potentially troublesome species. In the nine months Herrera and his birds have been on the job, no intruding birds have been harmed.
“We don’t want even a pigeon or a seagull to get hurt,” he said.
Putting Oden through his paces
Herrera, who runs a “nuisance bird abatement” business is called XFalconry and who also works as a veterinary technician, appears at the resort with his raptors for six hours a day, five days a week. On the weekends, he works the rooftops.
“The seagulls see a real-life predator, and they just back off,” he said. “We see a real reduction in loafing activity.”
While Herrera’s apprentice, Chloe Thum, held a young Harris’s hawk named Oden, its feet tied to a 100-foot cord, Herrera walked to the opposite side of a wide expanse of lawn. He brought out his bird whistle, along with bits of quail, frozen whole by a company that provides Herrera’s bird food.
“I’ll give you my back, and turn around, and blow,” Herrera called to Thum. “Ready?”
He did, and Oden took a long, low-swooping glide across the green, landing neatly on Herrera’s glove and tearing immediately into the gobbet of quail meat.
Herrera does take his birds out hunting, typically to open land in Riverside County, or near his parents’ home in Fresno, where they chase and capture jack rabbits.
He lives in Santa Ana, where he keeps his birds of prey in enclosures in the backyard.
Oden, a bird Herrera recently acquired, is “a week away from free flight,” he said; though the birds are well trained, he typically attaches a GPS transmitter to their legs, back or tail feathers so they can be tracked if they get lost.
“That’s the only thing that’s changed in falconry,” Herrera said, a sport he says is 4,000 years old.
Raptors are also good P.R.
There’s a public relations payoff, too, for having the birds at the resort. Guests are fascinated, and Orlich says the use of falcons instead of “chemicals or nets” to deal with pest birds is in keeping with the Montage’s “green” philosophy.
“It fits in with the sustainability practices of the organization,” Orlich said, which also include recycling and composting.
Perhaps Herrera’s most popular bird is Bubo, the Eurasian eagle owl, with startling orange eyes, ear tufts and a swivel head. The 8-month-old creature weighs in at five to six pounds and has a six-foot wingspan, but Herrera says owls are a bit more difficult to work with than falcons. They have a more independent streak, he explains, taking their time responding to his commands.
“They love him,” Herrera says of the hotel guests. “They think he’s fake, until he moves.”
Helping hotel and landfill operators get rid of problem birds “pays the bills,” Herrera says, but for him it’s a life’s passion. He began as a falconer’s apprentice at 22, and is now a state-licensed falconer a couple of years away from acheiving his “master falconer” status.
“I get to fly and train my birds,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”