Birds of prey help keep community safe
On a warm June afternoon at the Glenmore Landfill, Dennis Ingram and his falcon, Buddha, are busy performing for one of their daily exercises.
With speed, grace and purpose, Buddha takes to the sky to frighten off hundreds of gulls who have come to the landfill to scavenge through the reams of garbage.
Within seconds, the gulls recognize the danger posed by this bird of prey and immediately scatter from the area.
"Landfills can have as many as 5,000 gulls out there at one time and what we promote is generally a scare program," said Ingram. "Falcons are very aerial birds, so the other birds have time to see them coming and are quick to leave. The idea is to scare them off rather than killing them, to keep them away for as long as possible without harming them."
Ingram, who owns and operates LA Hawk Enterprises, is a pest bird clearance specialist and is contracted by the City of Kelowna to help manage bird populations at city parks and beaches, as well as the Glenmore Landfill.
At the landfill, the collection and consumption of garbage by gulls and many other birds can cause a range of health concerns for the public. The service Ingram and his falcons provide at the landfill is known as 'vector control.'
A vector is any living being that can transport harmful substances from one site to another—such as moving garbage from the landfill to public properties or neighbouring private lots.
Glenmore Landfill manager Ken Muller said Ingram's work is invaluable to the health and safety of the community.
"Falconry is an effective means of controlling bird populations, and what Dennis does is discourage gulls, crows, ravens and magpies from hanging around while we're doing our work," said Muller. "That's how disease can be carried. Some birds like gulls will take food as far away as the lake, or to nearby ponds to wash it. You can't be sure what they're carrying.
"If it's coming to the landfill, it's coming here for a good reason, it's at the end of its life," he adds. "You can't tell if it's noxious by looking at it and neither can a bird.
"We're also close to the airport and that's another reason you don't want birds congregating here."
Because birds can't always be outsmarted, Muller said Ingram's falconry program sometimes requires a bit of creative strategy.
"Dennis will mix it up, sometimes he comes in the morning, sometimes he comes in the afternoon, because birds are also very smart, more so than people realize," he said. "If he came at the same time everyday, the birds just wouldn't show up. The birds also send scouts in to see if he's there, they're very intelligent…and if he's not there it's not long before they're back."
Since 2006, Ingram has also been providing pest bird control for the City of Kelowna.
His birds of prey and his dogs, Indy and Raider, are frequent visitors to parks, beaches and sports fields throughout the city to manage geese and duck populations.
Geese can consume more than a kilogram of grass each per day, while leaving as much as four kilograms of feces behind in just one week.
Large amounts of goose waste can be a health hazard and may also compromise the quality of the lake water in public areas.
As is the case at the landfill, Ingram said scaring tactics at parks and beaches are carried out as humanely as possible. The dogs will chase but never touch a bird in the course of a work day, while the falcon is sent airborne to generally allow the geese enough time to safely reach the water.
In concert with a local initiative, the Okanagan Regional Goose Management Committee, Ingram's work has proved to be most effective in keeping parks and beaches safe and clean—according to the City of Kelowna's Urban Forestries Supervisor.
"Combined with his effort and our staff, the measures have really helped maintain very good conditions in many of our public areas," said Blair Stewart. "Since this effort, I don't believe we've had a single beach closure. It's important for water quality, so that our residents can enjoy our parks, and people who do visit here can also be comfortable."
Stewart said Ingram and his animals are an imposing presence for the water fowl who frequent green space and sand in Kelowna.
"It's quite amazing how the birds recognize him," said Stewart. "If they don't see his van or him, they're not worried. But when they see the truck he drives or when he's in the water in his boat, they know they shouldn't be there. It's all about behaviour…he's like a policeman to them.
"He's also very personable and knowledgeable, and is happy to interact with the public," Stewart added.
A retired firefighter who grew up in Alberta, Ingram has been training falcons, hawks and eagles for close to 50 years and has been an avid outdoorsman for just as long.
He keeps about six birds of prey at one time, mostly falcons, and mostly ranging in age from three months to four years. All are domestically bred in B.C. and once they reach around four years of age, the birds are cycled back into breeding programs. Birds in captivity can live up to 20 years, while only 25 per cent in the wild make it past the age of two.
Ingram begins training and socializing his birds from the first weeks of their lives, and contrary to a common belief, he said birds of prey aren't natural born hunters.
"People often think birds of prey are automatically instinctive, they know how to hunt, but nothing is farther from the truth," he said. "If a bird isn't taught how to hunt, it probably wouldn't survive very long. Those are skills you have to teach. I've been doing it so long, I've just learned how develop those specific skills."
On top of teaching survival skills to his birds, building trust is a vital aspect of each and every relationship with his feathered partners.
"My birds have to get used to things like big dogs and little dogs, big machines, things in parks like buggies and bikes…in nature they shy away from that stuff," Ingram said. "I have to work with them so they're comfortable with anything from a bulldozer to noisy kids. With all those things, you have to nurture that kind of behaviour.
"With my birds and my dogs, there's trust and a bond you build with them you have to shape that."
At 66, Ingram is grateful that he can still work in a job that continues to fulfill his passion for the outdoors and allows him to interact with his animals on a daily basis.
As for the services he and city staff provide to the people of Kelowna, Ingram admits the results are rather satisfying.
"People aren't always aware of how easily bacteria and disease can spread if public areas aren't taken care of properly," Ingram said. "So to see the crowded beaches, the weddings, the grad walks, people just enjoying themselves, knowing it's a safe environment…that's nice to see.
"The city does a tremendous job from what I see is keeping these places safe and clean. It's an important part of everyday life here."