George Pena and I are standing beneath my neighbor’s tree, the huge pine that I have come to think of as the Vulture Tree. He is telling me about his peregrine falcon, Nitro, who died after landing on a high voltage wire. I had met Nitro years ago, and I tell George I am sorry to hear about the falcon’s death. Peregrine chicks are expensive, costing as much as $2,500 to purchase, and then they must be trained for six months before George can use them in his bird abatement business. But it isn’t the financial loss that George is thinking about when he mentions Nitro.
It isn’t quite evening, so the vultures are still out riding the wind somewhere. Then George spots one or two.
“There they are,” he says. “They’re coming in.”
My eyes are not as good as George’s but I believe him when he tells me they are up there. If anyone knows how to spot a bird, it’s George, who has been a falconer for most of his life. I have not seen George in four or five years, since I last wrote about him after I saw him walking across the UC Merced campus one day, a falcon on his arm. “Can I follow you?” I asked. He said I could, and a few minutes later I watched as he released his falcon so that it could warn troublesome birds, such as pigeons, to stay away from its territory. George’s business, Fowl Play, still contracts with UC Merced.
“With the 2020 expansion,” George tells me, “it’s really important to keep birds away. If (there) any bird nests, the crew can’t work. Construction has to stop and it can be held up for months.”
This is because of federal protections granted to migratory birds in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the first major piece of legislation supported by the Audubon Society. The MBTA, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, has been instrumental in saving many bird species, most notably the snowy egret, hunted nearly to extinction for its feathers, which were used to adorn hats for upscale fashionistas of the 19th and early 20th century.
The law makes it illegal to pursue, hunt, take, or capture migratory birds without a permit. Originally written to protect birds that migrated between Canada and the United States, the MBTA was expanded in 1936 to cover birds migrating to Mexico, in 1972 to protect birds migrating between the U.S. and Japan, and in 1976 to include birds migrating between the U.S. and Russia.
The law also protects habitats and nests. Recently, the MBTA came under the scrutiny of President Trump’s Interior Department, which sought to re-interpret the law. In April of this year, the Interior Department declared that landowners cannot be held liable for destroying habitat or killing birds as long as causing harm to birds was not the primary reason for the destruction. Thus, an oil company seeking to expand its refinery, for example, can bulldoze right through habitat containing the nests of any number of protected birds, as long as the primary intent is expansion and not the destruction of habitat.
But my neighbor has a vulture problem that is entirely related to habitat and my neighbor is not, alas, a Chevron executive capable of employing Harvard-degree attorneys to help him skirt the MBTA. And so George tells me that, if my neighbor wants to get rid of the birds, he must apply for a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
However, George also tells me that the application process is easy. Usually, a permit to hassle birds is not viewed with gentle goodwill by officials at CDFW, who rightfully view their task to protect wildlife as essential and important. But in the case of a colony of vultures in someone’s backyard in a city neighborhood, George thinks the agency might make an exception. The Vulture Tree does not belong to the neighbor who is experiencing the problem, but if both the neighbor and the owner of the tree are willing to work together they can probably get a permit.
But the real issue isn’t the permit. The real issue is that George’s falcons are useless in the face of this problem.
“Vultures are at the top of the food chain,” George tells me. “They’re not going to be bothered by a falcon. Nothing bothers them.”
Then he mentions drones.
He tells me about a drone designed to look like a falcon.
“The problem, though, was that the drone couldn’t mimic falcon behavior. Birds communicate with one another through behavior. A bird knows a predatory falcon because of the way it acts. So the drone, even though it replicated the flight of a falcon, couldn’t fool the birds. It didn’t work.”
Well, I say, drones don’t seem very useful, then.
“Well,” George answers. “A drone might be effective because it’s different. There are three things that deter birds: fear, loss of canopy, and change.”
I know already that fear isn’t much of a deterrent for vultures, and George affirms this. Loss of canopy, which would entail hiring a company to saw limbs from the tree, is expensive, especially considering that the Vulture Tree is at least 100-feet tall.
“The thing about a drone is that it’s a change they don’t understand. They won’t like it, and if it keeps coming back they might go away for good.”
And George has a drone. Not a peregrine wanna-be drone, just an ordinary drone. He tells me that if my neighbor gets a permit, he’ll come back and give the drone a shot.
But here is the thing: I’m not so sure I want the vultures to go away. I love seeing them come in during twilight. I love watching them circle lower and lower, sometimes right above my own yard, and I love their hulking, dark presence in the middle of a city. They own the Vulture Tree in ways my neighbor never will.
My Pyrenees, the dog who started this story over a month ago when he had a nervous breakdown every time my neighbor fired a starter pistol to scatter the vultures, has been calm recently. My neighbor is on vacation, and the firing has stopped. I texted him recently, and he is certain the vultures will migrate south any day now. I am happy that he will have some peace in his backyard, but I will miss the vultures over the winter.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.