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Falconer Provides Unique Solution For Hotel Del

Jorge Herrera with one of his falcons at the Hotel Del Coronado.
Nicholas McVicker
Jorge Herrera with one of his falcons at the Hotel Del Coronado.

Birds Of Prey Keep Seagulls Away

Profile: Falconer Jorge Herrera
KPBS arts and culture reporter Beth Accomando speaks with falconer Jorge Herrera.

For years the Hotel Del Coronado has had to deal with seagulls stealing food from its guests. This year they tried a unique approach to solving the problem. KPBS arts and culture reporter Beth Accomando has this look at what a modern falconer has done to help the Hotel.

If the skies above the Hotel Del Coronado are clear of birds then Jorge Herrera is doing his job.

Jorge Herrera: A wild gull living on Hotel Del Coronado food is a very lucky bird and very fortunate. So all we are doing is scaring them, intimidating them.

Ray Stagg: What George does is he brings in his birds sets them up here on our Windsor Lawn then he will walk around the property. What it does is it, they are birds of prey so they frighten the other smaller birds and the seagulls.
Herrera provides bird abatement services through his company XFalconry. He keeps the pest birds under control by bringing in what he calls his "squadron of natural predators."
Jorge Herrera: I want the gulls to be scared and intimidated and not want to be around the presence of a natural predator and by doing so we keep them from coming in and stealing food cause that's why they are here... So I want to overload the seagulls and starlings senses... I call it a freak out. I want to freak them out...They see the wolves of the skies, sharks of the sky, they clear out.

Peregrine Falcon

There's good reason for the smaller birds to freak out. Hawks and falcons like the ones Herrera brings can be lethal to other birds says San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Kim Caldwell whose favorite bird of prey is a Peregrine Falcon named Java.

Kim Caldwell: They are the fastest animals in the world, in a hunting dive Peregrines have been clocked at speed in excess of 240 miles an hour. So the speed is just phenomenal. So they are designed for high speed pursuit. And the thing that holds the falcon above all other raptors is that they almost exclusively take prey from the air.

But Herrera doesn't have to do much more than show up to scare the gulls. The simple tactic of walking around with his hawk on a perch or doing short flights is enough to flush the pesky birds away. It's an easy job for the predators.

Jorge Herrera: The falcons pretty much lounge out here, they get some sun, some nice cool ocean breeze... very minimal activity because they don't have to be up in the air the whole time to get the effect.

But the seagulls do not abandon the hotel easily. When Herrera brings out his hawk the gulls first respond by increasing their numbers.

Jorge Herrera: So what the gulls are trying to do is intimidate her in numbers so they are making a ruckus with that ruckus you will also notice like we talked about there was gulls on the sand on the beach they cleared out of the area, they heard the others calling out that there was a predator in the area, warning call, so they start clearing out because their instinct is survival of the fittest, fight or flight, they are going to clear out.

The gulls also prove to be smart. They learn Herrera's schedule and hang out at the hotel on his days off.

Ray Stagg: He's a little smarter than the birds so he outsmarts them but they do, they know him, so it's comical.

Kim Caldwell: So all these birds are a lot smarter than most people give them credit for seagulls and corbetts and crows and ravens they can recognize people's faces and recognize danger...
And they recognize Herrera and his birds of prey.
Jorge Herrera: So the crows would be in those palm trees and as soon as they see me the crows would recognize me and start alarming.

Herrera mixes up his schedule and the birds start to clear out and stay out. Herrera may scare gulls away but he attracts hotel guests. They want to snap pictures and learn more about the birds.

Jorge Herrera: They do recognize me but they are not affectionate like a cat or a dog, they're comfortable they recognize you and they tolerate you because they are still wild.

Herrera considers himself lucky because his hobby is his job. It has a lot of rewards as well as some minor dangers.

Jorge Herrera: I have to be careful when I have her this high to pint her away cause she will go to the bathroom and drop it on my head.

Herrera has finished his season at the Hotel Del and is now providing bird abatement services at landfills in the Inland Empire.