Across all industries, workers are struggling through the economic slowdown. In California, urban falconers are hoping their jobs will be recession-proof.
As the state slowly reopens, maybe there will continue to be a need for trained birds of prey to flush sparrows from the poolside arbors of fancy hotels. Or to provide a line of defense for cinematography drones against territorial sea gulls. Or to make paid appearances at special occasions, including engagement shoots and vow renewals.
At least, this is the hope and prayer of Adam Baz, whose highly variable hustle as a freelance falconer requires that even his owl has headshots.
“Frankly, as a millennial who spent 10 years floating somewhere between babysitter, musician and bird biologist and never making that much money, I wanted to start moving along a career path,” said Mr. Baz, 35, who was first drawn to falconry in its more traditional form, as an ancient blood sport. During the two-year apprenticeship required to earn his General Class designation — a step in the formal hierarchy of falconers — he learned that it was possible to not only hunt game with raptors, but to bring home a paycheck.
Now, operating as Hawk on Hand, he works as a subcontractor for bird abatement companies like Integrated Avian Services in Portland, Ore., and Hawk Pros in Eagle, Idaho. They provide falconry services across the Western U.S. to scare away “pest birds” — sea gulls, sparrows, starlings, pigeons — from agricultural, commercial and municipal properties, airports, fields of solar panels and anywhere else birds could be a nuisance.
Urban bird abatement falconry first became a viable career path in 2007 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a federal permitting program for the use of protected raptors, some of which are well-suited to flying in urban environments. As of 2019, only 137 permits had been issued nationwide, but more than a third are held by falconers in California, where the weather is hospitable to both birds and people year-round, and many business owners are drawn to greener or more humane alternatives to bird control (which might otherwise include bird sound deterrents, hostile architecture or toxic substances known as avicides).
The work gives Mr. Baz an opportunity to be outdoors and to work with wildlife, but to keep flexible hours. For these same reasons, professional falconry is appealing to an increasing number of young career seekers.
“At the beginning there might have been this attitude of ‘yeah, that’s not real falconry,’” said Kort Clayton, 47, the founder and principal of Integrated Avian Solutions. “But younger falconers overwhelmingly don’t see that. They see this as a really interesting opportunity,” he said, adding that nearly all of the falconers he hires are in their 20s and 30s.
Still Life With Falcon
To supplement his bird abatement work, Mr. Baz operates a roving one-man “falconry school,” providing demonstrations, experiences and interactive lessons. (He has paused these offerings in keeping with social distancing measures.)
“I’ve had blind people take my demos, people who didn’t speak English, old people, young people, people who identify as witches — just truly all kinds of people,” he said.
“It’s important for the public to get a glimpse into the world of falconry so they see the quality of life that these birds have. I worry sometimes that if all you’ve ever seen about falconry is a still image of a bird with hood on its head and leather straps around its ankles, it’s taken out of context,” he said. “You’re not seeing that bird spectacularly free-flying in this beautiful dance with the falconer as the falconer swings the lure and pulls it out of the air at 150 miles per hour. And that seems like a grave loss to me.”
“Plus, I spend a lot of time on rooftops in Burbank with my birds and my dog by myself, so it’s a nice counterbalance to that,” he added.
Mr. Baz also shares his experience with his birds on Instagram. But despite what some proponents of #falconrylife may advertise, he said he tries to be clear that communing with birds of prey isn’t all lovey-dovey.
“On the one hand, the falconry community tends to be very closed and secretive, and I want to make falconry more accessible to people. On the other, it shouldn’t be too easy for people to own these wild animals that are federally protected. They aren’t pets,” he said. “This relationship is really just about training and a symbiotic partnership. I always say the hardest part of being a falconer is the unreciprocated love.”
While it’s easy to be drawn in by the splendor and quirkiness of his line of work, he added, the gritty details of the day-to-day don’t often come across. For example, he and his girlfriend share their 550-square-foot, one-bedroom cottage in Highland Park and backyard with five large birds and a hunting dog.
The five birds, which live out back in large enclosures, or mews, are two Harris’s hawks, named Jasper and Fox; a Lanner falcon called Orion; a rare African augur buzzard, Kanoni; and Nico the Eurasian eagle owl, who spends a fair amount of time indoors on the couch and who may grow to have a six-and-a-half-foot wingspan. The dog is Oona, a red-brown Hungarian Vizsla that Mr. Baz chose in part because of the breed’s role in falconry dating back to the 10th century or earlier.
It gets crowded.
Plus, much of Mr. Baz’s free time is devoted to training, cleaning out cages or chopping up dead mice he purchases from a laboratory supplier, he said.
And on the job site, danger abounds, and it’s hard to get results. “In downtown Los Angeles, there are light rails, buses, crazy people on drugs, poisoned rats, sick pigeons, huge plate glass windows that reflect the sky which birds will fly into — any number of things can go wrong. You have massive intensive pigeon infestations, which are very difficult to haze,” he said. “Some falconers have what it takes, some don’t.”
That Hawk Hustle
Outside of the city, different landscapes present different challenges.
Cassie McGraw, 37, a bird abatement freelancer who spends five days a week chasing sea gulls away from refuse at a Bay Area transfer station said, “You can make all this money, sure, if you get that one great contract. But most of us, especially in the beginning, we have to hustle. Sometimes we go months without anything.”
Tony Pantaleo, a 28-year-old bird abatement falconer in California’s Central Valley, who helps keep crows from defecating all over downtown areas from Sacramento down to Bakersfield, said what a freelance falconer can make — up to $10,000 a month for full-time, sunrise-to-sunset vineyard abatement or somewhere between $30 and $75 an hour for abatement work in cities — may sound like a lot to others, until they consider that the job is 24/7.
“After our income, we still have a ton of costs to cover, and still we’ve got all those hours off the clock,” he said. “It’s not super easy to find a hawk-sitter.”
On the American market, Harris’s hawks, who are well-suited to navigating crowded urban areas, cost up to $800. Falcons, like the Lanner falcon Mr. Baz recently acquired and which is permitted for use in film and photo shoots, range from $1,500 to $3,000. Owls and other rare raptors may cost twice that amount. All require lengthy and intense periods of training.
Then there’s the gear: Most items in a falconer’s tool kit — gloves and gauntlets, the birds’ leather anklets, jesses and bells, perches, carriers, whistles and laser pointers to which birds may be trained to respond — are not in and of themselves prohibitively expensive, but the costs add up fast.
A lightweight GPS transmitter, which attaches to a bird’s feathers to track it on the job, can cost $1,000. And a mixed diet of frozen chickens, quail and rodents can run a falconer hundreds of dollars a month.
To make it all work, Mr. Baz’s avian services must cast a wide net. In addition to a few bird abatement jobs per week, a 90-minute “hawk walk” is $300 for a group of three. One hour of owl snuggling may cost $75 per person.
Despite that it takes years to get one’s foot in the door, there is already thick competition between professional falconers — especially in Los Angeles — and Mr. Baz doesn’t see interest from newcomers flagging anytime soon.
“People need to get back in touch with nature and wildlife and I think that’s particularly true with the stresses and pace of the modern world. So even though falconry feels like it’s at odds with an urban existence, in some ways it’s the perfect antidote,” he said. “That’s the essence of what drew me in, and I think that’s a big part of why many young people are aspiring to be falconers — even if it means grinding away chasing pigeons in downtown L.A.”