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War against grackles escalates with hawk on patrol in Waco

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This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Waco Tribune-Herald.

WACO, Texas (AP) — Fair warning to the squawking, trash-scavenging, car-splattering hordes along Austin Avenue in Waco: Tiberius is watching.

Tiberius is a Harris’s hawk with a fearsome hooked beak and talons, and if he can’t eat all the grackles in downtown Waco, his handlers say he can strike terror in their little avian hearts.

Mark Smith of Blackjack Bird Abatement has been taking Tiberius on his night patrols downtown last week as part of a contract with the city of Waco to move the nuisance birds away.

“What normally happens is that he will fly straight up into a tree, then I’ll take off walking down the street, and he’ll fly from tree to tree,” Smith told the Waco Tribune-Herald ( ) last week near City Hall as Tiberius perched on his leather glove.

“All the grackles know, ‘I’ve got a hawk after me.’ If one gets caught, the whole roost know about it, and it sends them all into a panic. Luckily, we don’t have to take out too many of them. Just his presence is enough.”

Since 2013, the Fort Worth firm has had a seasonal contract with the city parks and recreation department to control bird populations from October to May. The cost is $1,750 per month.

Parks superintendent John Rose said the firm has been successful in reducing bird populations around River Square Center. But now Austin Avenue and the City Hall area are seeing more grackles, and the problem has started earlier in the year than usual.

The city is paying Blackjack to bring out its hawks every weeknight this September and is bidding to contract for a longer season next year as part of a downtown cleanup effort.

Rose said he saw several thousand grackles along Austin Avenue when he went out with the Blackjack falconer last week.

“There was one tree he flushed out that probably had at least 500,” he said. “Wherever we can get them away is a place where we don’t have to spend so much time getting rid of the smell and power-washing the sidewalks.”

Blackjack Bird Abatement also uses other methods, including green laser pointers, to disrupt the roosting birds and pressure them to move somewhere else.

Jeff Cattoor, owner of Blackjack Bird Abatement, said hitting the roosts regularly will eventually cause them to relocate long-term.

“The secret sauce is going out consecutive nights,” Cattoor said. “If you just do it a couple of nights, these grackles and starlings will put up with that, but when you’re consistently reintroducing a predator … they decide this is no longer a safe place to roost.”

Cattoor said he has had long-term success with moving nuisance birds in downtown Fort Worth and on the San Antonio Riverwalk area. Centro San Antonio, which maintains that city’s downtown, contracted with the company from 2009 to 2013 but now uses another firm that uses alternative methods, said Jimmy Richards, the group’s public improvement district director.

But he said the raptor program was a success in keeping grackles away from downtown visitors and keeping bird feces out of the river.

“Jeff did a great job for us,” Richards said. “Year after year, it does reduce the numbers. … It’s one of those small things that people don’t notice, but it’s an improvement for downtown visitors’ experience.”

Tiberius, a 1-year-old Harris’s hawk raised in captivity, lives with Smith, a falconer with a decade of experience.

Harris’s hawks, a common raptor in the Southwest and Mexico, tend to hunt in groups, unlike red-tailed hawks, which means they are more social birds.

“They’ve got such a good nature,” Smith said. “They’re very adaptable.”

Like most hawks, Harris’s hawks are daytime birds, but their training and their exposure to the artificial lighting of cities has allowed them to adjust to hunting grackles at night. Still, they face on-the-job hazards, including electrical transformers and larger owls, which can feed on hawks.

With proper care, a Harris’s hawk can remain in service more than 20 years.

“In the wild, they live a considerably shorter amount of time,” he said. “They have a 70 percent mortality rate in their first year.”

Smith has three raptors at his home southwest of Fort Worth but only uses Tiberius for grackle hunting. He said working together gives them a bond, though he still has to be careful with a partner with half-inch-long talons.

Asked about the scratches around his left wrist, he laughed.

“He got me while ago,” Smith said. “I keep him on a perch in my truck. I was turning the air conditioner and he nailed me. I joked that he was already cold and didn’t want me to turn the air conditioner on. They get moody, just like anyone else.”


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