WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — With his auburn feathers, white tail and three-foot wingspan, Remmy, a Harris’s hawk, makes for an impressive — and incongruous — sight at an upscale outdoor shopping mall anchored by Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
“We had a major pigeon problem and were unsure of the best way to get it under control,” says Shelly Dress, senior manager of property management at the mall.
That’s where Remmy came in. After rejecting other options, such as fabric netting that would prevent pigeon nesting in certain spots, Dress turned to the Hawk Pros, a company based in Southern California that uses falconry to eradicate pest birds. At any given time, the firm has five to 10 birds of prey on assignment at sites such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the U.S. Bank Tower, also in L.A.
Remmy and his colleagues are part of a growing trend of using raptors to intimidate nuisance birds such as pigeons and seagulls, a practice that avoids the use of chemicals and — unlike in the ancient hunting sport of falconry — scares targets but lets them live. Some U.S. farmers deploy them to protect crops. Harris’s hawks patrol the grass courts at Wimbledon and Trafalgar Square in London. Falcons haze pigeons and crows at resorts in Dubai.
Since Remmy and his owner and handler, Bridget Maguire-Colton, have been coming to Broadway Plaza on a regular basis, the pigeon population has dropped from a few dozen to just a few, most of them in pockets of the garage. Dress initially hired the Hawk Pros for 12 days a month, Dress said, but Remmy was so effective that he now needs to stop by the mall only eight days a month, for three hours at a time, to ensure that the pigeons stay away.
With super-keen eyesight and the ability to rotate his head for 200-degree vision, Remmy surveys the shopping center for signs of pigeons. And when the pigeons at Broadway Plaza see Remmy, they take notice.
On a recent day, Maguire-Colton released the 2-year-old hawk from her gloved hand. He flew to the top of a cosmetics store, Lush, and scanned the outdoor eating area. Not seeing any pigeons, he swooped back down to his trainer’s hand.
The parking garage, however, was a different story. Up in the rafters was a pigeon that apparently hadn’t received the memo announcing Remmy’s hire as the mall’s official bird bouncer. Taking flight, Remmy darted toward the blacklisted bird. After several ensuing squawks, the smaller bird retreated, flying out of the open-air garage to parts unknown. Seemingly satisfied with a job well done, Remmy returned to Maguire-Colton and received a small piece of meat for his efforts.
“A scared pigeon is an educated pigeon,” Maguire-Colton says. “That pigeon will return to its flock and let the other birds know there’s a hawk here who means business. Pigeons are smart birds — they will remember where the hawk is and will seek out another venue for shelter, water and food.”
Maguire-Colton, a lifelong bird lover who is a licensed falconer, purchased Remmy from a California breeder when he was 5 months old. When she began training him at around 7 months old, she taught him to focus on pigeons. When he’s not working, he hangs out in a large enclosure at her home with her other Harris’s hawk, TK, or goes hunting with her for rabbits and pheasants.
“Harris’s hawks have a natural instinct to hunt,” said Maguire-Colton, who keeps Remmy on a long leash, letting him off only when he searches for prey. To call him back, she uses whistles and commands and rewards him for following directions.
Although Remmy appears fearless, he does shiver when a pet dog passes by. Maguire-Colton said she thinks he sees dogs as coyotes, one of the hawk’s predators in the wild. (He has an especially strong dislike for dogs in sweaters.)
Remmy’s an all-weather bird, in California at least. But when temperatures hit triple digits, Maguire-Colton brings a water bottle for him and keeps Remmy in shaded areas to prevent overheating. Sometimes, she said, she dips her finger into the mall fountains, and if it doesn’t taste too strongly of chlorine, she lets the hawk take a quick dip.
Unsurprisingly, Remmy has established a fan following at Broadway Plaza. On this day, a man with two small children stopped to inquire about the bird’s species and job description. Later, two tourists from Japan approached to ask whether they could pose for a photo with Remmy.
“Hiring Remmy was the best money we’ve spent,” Dress said. “He not only keeps the mall free of pigeons, he’s also become something of a local celebrity.”