The Ancient Art of Falconry at the Jersey Shore

Listen to This Article

Audio Recording by Audm

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

The war between humans and gulls in Ocean City, N.J., reached a turning point in 2019. In the years leading up to then, the town’s populations of great black-backed, ring-billed, laughing and herring gulls had become increasingly comfortable snatching beachgoers’ French fries, potato chips and other finger foods. One day that spring, Ocean City’s mayor, Jay Gillian, watched as a gull swooped into a stroller on the boardwalk and stole a slice of pizza from a toddler’s hands. The mayor swears he saw blood on the little girl’s face, though he admits it may have been sauce. The town’s brand — its slogan is “America’s Greatest Family Resort” — was being sullied.

That was it for the mayor. “I’d seen too many attacks on seniors and kids,” Gillian told me earlier this year. He asked his business administrator, George Savastano, to find a solution. Savastano searched online for something like “how to deter sea gulls,” and, after skipping over links for spike strips, sound machines and netting — fixes that had already been tried with scant success by various businesses in Ocean City — he happened upon a video showing the use of raptors to deter gulls, crows, pigeons and other so-called nuisance birds from places like airports and garbage dumps. But, Savastano told me, “I couldn’t come across any situation exactly like ours.” He emailed an inquiry to a New Jersey-based outfit called East Coast Falcons anyway.

A few days later, its owner, Erik Swanson, showed up to assess the situation. “We get a lot of people that think they have a bird problem, and they don’t,” Swanson says. “And then I have a lot of people that say they have ‘a little bird problem,’ and I see this.” He returned a few days later in his Ford F-150 pickup with a lone, white-and-gray mottled gyr prairie falcon, an adolescent named Tilda. Swanson guided the raptor — a hybrid of the Arctic gyrfalcon and Western U.S. prairie falcon, which can dive at speeds of around 100 miles per hour — onto his leather-gloved fist and walked with Savastano and Gillian up onto the boardwalk. The mood in the sky suddenly changed. “You could hear the gulls start calling,” Savastano says. “Like, ‘Wa! Wa!’” “Guess what?” Savastano recalls Swanson telling him. “They know they’re now prey.”

Two of Swanson’s birds in the back of his pickup in Ocean City, N.J.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

One of Swanson’s hawks, charged with patrolling the beach for gulls.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Swanson was demonstrating for Savastano a modern version of one of the oldest known manipulations of nature by man: falconry, traditionally understood as the art of trapping and training wild raptors — predominantly falcons, hawks, eagles and owls — to fly to and from a human handler while hunting small game. Four-thousand-year-old petroglyphs in Iran depict horsemen with birds perched on their arms. Marco Polo’s chronicler, writing about the explorer’s travels through the 13th-century Mongol Empire, noted that while the women did all the household “buying and selling,” the men “all lead the life of gentlemen, troubling themselves about nothing but hunting and hawking.” In 1492, Columbus gave hawk’s bells, or falconry accouterment, to some Indigenous Americans.

Falconry didn’t become established in the United States until the early 20th century. John Goodell, the executive director of The Archives of Falconry at The World Center for Birds of Prey, located in Boise, Idaho, notes that early-American falconers lacked the generational knowledge of their Old World counterparts, hobbyists from the aristocratic classes. Instead, American falconry became more aligned with the country’s burgeoning conservation movement, which included figures like the wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold and his student Frances Hamerstrom; both were falconers, and she helped establish the Raptor Research Foundation. “We were almost restarting this ancient sport,” Goodell says.

Savastano hired Swanson and his team of falconers more or less on the spot. The birds were an instant sensation. Crowds followed the handlers as they patrolled the boardwalk, letting their raptors soar freely into the air, going from rooftop to sign post and back to the “fist,” as falconers put it. The birds of prey, their hunger kept at bay with carefully measured chunks of mouse, rabbit or quail, were uninterested in killing the gulls, though when one got close enough, they could not help toying with it, giving high-speed chase or diving suddenly at it. But mostly the gulls kept their distance, returning only when the raptors were away, a back-and-forth that made for good business. By the next summer, several rival falconry-abatement firms were bidding for the lucrative Ocean City contract, but the town retained Swanson, locking in East Coast Falcons at a rate, as of this year, of $1,993.42 a day, with a maximum budget of $250,000. As Goodell says: “Abatement’s a growing sector. It’s a really innovative, creative way to deal with pests without much worse tools.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sport’s ancient roots, there is debate among falconers over whether abatement counts as true falconry. “This is a hunting sport, and falconry is defined as hunting wild prey with trained raptors,” says Scott McNeff, a past president of the North American Falconers Association, the largest falconry membership organization in the world. “And if you’re not actively hunting, then it’s not falconry.” Though he considers abatement a “win-win” because of its relatively bloodless effectiveness, McNeff says the debate is stoked by a growing concern for the sport’s future.

A hood placed over a raptor’s head helps keep it calm.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

In 2010, UNESCO first added falconry to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list, calling it “an age-old drama.” Since then, according to McNeff, the international falconry community has been careful to distinguish between falconry and abatement in order to protect the UNESCO-recognized version of the sport, which is in accord with NAFA’s ethics policy; it states that falconry should “not include the keeping of birds of prey as pets or prestige items.” That’s because, in recent years, especially in Europe, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have criticized the use of raptors for “shows” or “demonstrations.” On its British website, PETA states: “Falconers treat birds of prey, such as falcons, owls and eagles, as living props and put them on display for tourists. Tied to a block of wood with a short leather strap for hours or even days, their life is one of boredom and torment.”

For the gulls, however, Swanson’s current five hawks, 12 falcons and Eurasian eagle-owl are much better than the typical alternative. In 2021 alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed 17,633 gulls in the name of wildlife control, along with 2,664 hawks, 510 falcons and 359 owls. “You come in here and knock out 20,000 gulls — well, that’s 20,000 less birds to clean up the beach,” Swanson says. “Everything is here for a reason.” One of those reasons, argues Amanda Rodewald, an avian biologist at Cornell University, is the presence of people, like it or not. “Connections are complicated,” she says. “In removing one species, it can be difficult to predict what the consequences are going to be for others in that system — we don’t know which species are going to be valuable to us someday.”

The use of raptors to haze nuisance birds appears to have been invented by the British military in the 1940s at an air base in Scotland, where peregrine falcons, whose diving speeds of nearly 200 m.p.h. make them the fastest animals in the world, were deployed to chase gulls from the runways. In the following decades, the practice spread to the clearing of herring and ring-billed gulls from a Canadian garbage dump, wood pigeons from an English field planted with cabbage and brussels sprouts, even crows from the Kremlin. Thomas L. Freeman, who is the chair of math and science at Eastern New Mexico University-Ruidoso and studies diurnal raptors, told me that hawks and falcons are so effective because they are unpredictable in ways that artificial deterrents cannot be. “You can put scarecrows out, and they work for a while,” he says. “But with birds of prey, the animals they go after are going to perceive real danger, dynamic danger.”

Swanson prepares lunch for his birds by disemboweling the carcasses of refrigerated quail.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Hawks and falcons are different types of birds. Hawks, the bigger of the two (its family, Accipitridae, also includes eagles and vultures), prefer to chase prey, then pounce, killing it with their talons. Falcons tend to dive bomb their prey, hitting it first with their talons then breaking its neck and severing its spine with a notch on their beaks, called a tomial tooth. (Owls watch from a perch, then attack, crushing prey with their huge feet.) All raptors’ eyes “refresh” twice as fast as the human eye, even when the birds are flying at high speeds, plus their peripheral vision is mostly — or perhaps completely — clear. Now imagine all that clarity magnified eight times. If a hawk were sitting in an ophthalmologist’s chair and looking across the room at a Snellen chart, Freeman says, “I suspect they could easily read the copyright notice at the bottom.” Swanson likens this power to being able to read a newspaper from a block away.

“Behavioral plasticity” is used by wildlife biologists to describe a species’ ability to quickly adapt to new environments and habitat stressors. Gulls and pigeons and crows, rabbits and raccoons — they all share the trait to a high degree. For example, the herring gull, one of the most common of the Laridae family of seabirds in the American Northeast, has come to understand in an evolutionary blink of an eye that packages handled by humans are likely to contain a meal, and that onion rings, which weren’t around 30 million years ago, when it is thought the Laridae emerged, will do just as well as surf clams. Raptors exhibit similar plasticity — most likely, Freeman says, because they are apex predators motivated by food; a captive Harris’s hawk is as happy to take rabbit meat from a human hand as it is from a woodland meadow. This level of comfort, however, has allowed both traditional and abatement falconers to sometimes put their raptors in hazardous situations. Swanson has used his birds to chase pigeons from a tire shop and crows from cemeteries and strip malls. “When I first started, it was airports, and that was about it,” he says. “I can’t believe how many different venues have started to pop up.”

Swanson lives in Lodi, N.J., about a 30-minute drive from downtown Manhattan, with his wife, Maria, and their 17 hawks and falcons, a coup of pigeons, two dachshunds and Ozzy, the Eurasian eagle-owl. The raptors live in spacious mews that take up much of the small property’s side yard; the pool was filled in to make room. During a recent visit, I watched as Swanson prepared lunch for his birds: He pulled a package of dead quail from the fridge, sat down at the kitchen table and began disemboweling the carcasses over a trash bin. About a decade ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which requires him to use a walking stick when in the field and has made practicing falconry painful and difficult, but he won’t quit. Falconry, he told me, “has been a lifestyle all the way through.”

Swanson was born in Brooklyn but grew up in Staten Island, where he acquired a reputation as the kid whom neighbors could take injured birds to for rehabilitation. When he discovered the golden eagle at the Staten Island Zoo, he became a regular annoyance to the zookeepers, because he found that, by feeding the bird mice, he could influence its behavior. By his early teens, he was hopping buses from Port Authority to the Adirondacks for weekslong sojourns in the mountains. At the time, Swanson was unaware of the novel “My Side of the Mountain,” about a New York City boy who runs away to the Catskills and finds companionship with a peregrine falcon. He says his experience was less romantic: “I just kind of got dirty, took baths in streams and fished.”

A goshawk flaps its wings in the mews.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Back in the city, Swanson fell in with the Guardian Angels, the notorious citizen-patrol group. He ranged through Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square with a German shepherd in tow. The group’s founder, Curtis Sliwa, told me he recalled Swanson from among the scores of young volunteers in the 1980s, because, he said, “We haven’t had that many blond-haired Guardian Angels.” In his 20s, Swanson tried a job in sales at a car dealership but quickly decided he couldn’t wear a “monkey suit” every day. He went to work for Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J., where he was first tasked with animal control for veterinarian visits; soon after, he was training a golden eagle for educational demonstrations. In his free time, he began trapping and training his own birds. Living in North Jersey, where open space was rapidly being transformed into housing developments and parking lots, Swanson often had to fly his birds in the Meadowlands, where methane gas flares from landfills have been known to singe the feathers of both wild raptors and those of other falconers.

In 2007, the federal government legalized the use of raptors for commercial abatement, after the National Fish and Wildlife Service noticed growing interest in the practice; the agency has currently issued 210 “Special Purpose-Abatement” permits to falconers across the United States. “Airports are always innovating and looking for new solutions as birds become accustomed to, and thus less responsive to, current nonlethal methods,” a Fish and Wildlife representative told me, adding that vineyards and fruit producers are also increasingly turning to abatement falconry. Suddenly, a viable career path opened up to Swanson. And though he has done abatement jobs at places like John F. Kennedy International Airport and at blueberry farms, his position as a falconer of the Northeast megalopolis has also taken him to some strange locales.

Some years ago, he was asked to check out a wastewater treatment plant in New York that had become home to a breeding colony of pigeons. But when Swanson released his goshawk — a raptor known for its fierceness — into the affected building, the birds didn’t budge. Their stubbornness was understandable. “All the free food we want, and nothing comes in after us,” is what Swanson imagined the birds thinking. “Maybe they thought they found the Taj Mahal.” Unwilling to flee from the bird of prey, now loose in their home, some of the pigeons were killed and eaten. Jezebel, the goshawk, ended up contracting a host of bacterial and fungal infections, and Swanson also got sick himself. From his perspective, the place was no Taj; it was Dante’s Inferno. In a world where humans so often eliminate pests by extinguishing them, Swanson is proud that he can exert control without killing. He swore off any future jobs that might confront him with the same moral considerations. “I felt terrible,” he says. “Like I was knocking out this little ecosystem.”

But accidents still happen. Over the course of a summer in Ocean City, Swanson’s hawks and falcons will sometimes go rogue and attack a gull. “A couple will get caught every year,” he says. “You can’t stop it.” Last season, one of his hawks chased a gull about a mile out to sea, presumably killed it, then tried to swim its body back to shore. All of Swanson’s birds are fixed with GPS transmitters, which connect to a smartphone app. He watched as his hawk’s beacon moved slowly with the ocean’s current. A rescue vessel was dispatched, but, Swanson says, “she was already under.”

Falconry, Swanson says, “has been a lifestyle all the way through.”Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Episodes like this help to fuel the doubts about abatement both within the falconry community as well as outside of it. Noah Perlut worries more about the health implications for raptors raised and trained to solve problems for humans that humans themselves have created. Perlut is a professor at the University of New England who studies the impact of the built environment on bird species. He says it is not normal for a raptor to drown after pursuing a gull only a mile out to sea. “That’s not very far for a wild, fit raptor,” he says. “In some ways, that inability to survive and get back to shore may speak to the fitness of that raptor as a captive animal.”

The image of swarms of gulls lifting pizza slices from the hands of tourists may suggest a species thriving, but that is in fact an illusion. In North America, the Laridae family has declined by a little more than 50 percent in the last 50 years. Perlut’s own research on the herring gulls in the Gulf of Maine — some of which spend time at the New Jersey Shore — has revealed they have declined by 5 percent annually for the last 25 years.

That the gulls appear to be proliferating is a function of their high behavioral plasticity. “How many places between Maine and New Jersey are undeveloped? Very few,” Perlut says. “So, if they want to exist in this distribution, they have to be human-centric.” There’s no problem with pushing them away from places where they may be inclined to steal junk food from unsuspecting hands, he argues, but we need to think of them dualistically. “Let’s keep them off the places where they’re causing problems, but at the same time, let’s make sure that there are places where they’re not harassed,” he says. “I’m not suggesting they’re under threat, but they are a declining species.”

All raptors’ eyes “refresh” twice as fast as the human eye, even when the birds are flying at high speeds.Credit…Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

On the entire American coast, a little over 14,000 miles of ocean, estuary, bay and tidal river shores — about the distance from New York to Los Angeles and back, two and a half times over — has been “hardened” by sea walls, bulkheads and other structures. What makes places like Ocean City special is the overlap between the natural and built environments — one minute you’re swimming in the waves, the next you’re riding a roller coaster. But there are expanses of ocean today devoid of their former biodiversity. Skies once filled with birdsong are now silent. Beaches are manufactured, replenished with sand and sculpted to favor the human footprint above all others. Perlut suggests we ask ourselves what a beach would be entirely without gulls trundling along the white edges of the breakers, without the distinct sound of their laughter. Without, even, the rush you get when one is ripping an Italian hoagie from your fingertips. Is the nature we think we see even nature at all?

On the Ocean City boardwalk one day in late May, families stood around one of Swanson’s falconers, an apprentice and their Harris’s hawk, Karen, who stretched her wings wide in the sea breeze. The sky above was empty; a few laughing gulls patrolled the ocean’s edge. Beachgoers carelessly devoured pizza and ice cream. For those who remembered the earlier days of the war between human and gull, this was the most beautiful truce. One woman, who was visiting from out of town, told me the raptors had finally brought balance. Sometimes “we let the pendulum swing too far,” she said. Now the gulls “know their boundaries.”

The woman didn’t want the birds to disappear. She just wanted them to keep their distance. This is a refrain that Swanson sometimes hears while working the boardwalk. He likes to remind people that the gulls are not gone, just somewhere else, eating the clams and crabs and other natural food sources “that die and roll up in the surf — cleaning all the crap off that beach you want to sit on.” In other words, performing a service. “At least we’re not out there with shotguns,” he says. “Shooting everything that moves.”

Andrew S. Lewis is a writer who covers environmental issues for N.J. Spotlight News and is also the author of “The Drowning of Money Island.” He last wrote for the magazine about the impact of climate change on the Jersey Shore. Devin Oktar Yalkin is a photographer based in Los Angeles who has covered diverse subjects for the magazine, including President Joe Biden; Nicolas Berggruen, a German American investor and philanthropist; and the effects of climate change on the Jersey Shore.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button