Peregrine Landfill: Gabrielle Théroux and the Falconry of Filth – Jordan Coulombe

In a landfill, just outside of town, birds of prey circle above pyramids of waste. Gabrielle Théroux calls one to her with a piece of meat outstretched, and the raptor grips her gloved arm with its pointed talons. The workday has come to an end and the falcon takes the flesh into its beak, sheltering itself with spread wings. Its appetite has been building from a day of chasing seagulls off its territory and Gabrielle is ready to return it to the aviary.

Eight kilometres away from the landfill is a nesting colony of 150,000 ring-billed seagulls, and they are hungry for trash. They haven’t eaten much while nesting and they’ve become aggressive. Attracted by the field of leftovers, they come to feed at the dump, and they create their own waste as they relieve themselves on the suburban properties below.

In reaction to this migration, the residents of the area filed successive complaints, and tension began to build. After the city brought the landfill to court over the mess, a peculiar solution was found: Gabrielle, along with a few other falconers, began working with birds of prey to keep the seagulls from flocking around the site and above the nearby SUVs and swimming pools.

Gabrielle swears that you adjust to the awkward odour of rot after working at the dump for a while. It’s the amount of dust she breathes in that is the main occupational hazard. That, and the risk of being swiped by trucks and garbage compactors. It’s a deafening landscape between the machines, the birds and the music Gabrielle blasts from her truck to pump herself up. “I’m pretty sure I’ve lost hearing from my left ear,” she says remorselessly.

Gabrielle and her colleagues begin training the falcons as soon as they are able to fly. “We don’t train our birds to kill seagulls. Killing them doesn’t work because it doesn’t educate the seagull. They don’t go home at night and tell the others: ‘Let’s not to go there tomorrow.’” This method of pest control is much more sympathetic than the one used at another landfill site in the region where they have a license to use a machine gun. “They kill a minimum of a 100 seagulls a day and it doesn’t even really have any effect,” Gabrielle laments.

A typical day at the dump starts at 5am, when Gabrielle weighs her falcon, Rita, to make sure she is at flying weight. “The reason they come back is because we have food and we fly them at a weight that motivates them to come eat. If they’re full they won’t come to us.” The falcons that Gabrielle uses also have a small emitter placed on their leg to help track them when they leave their aviaries. Sometimes Rita hides in the trees because she’s learned that she can count on Gabrielle using food to lure her out. Still, the falcons are more loyal than one might think. Once, a falcon couldn’t be found at the end of the day and had to be left out overnight, but the next morning she was waiting in the middle of the landfill site on a pole.

One wonders why these raptors, who are so motivated by food, don’t eat the garbage like the seagulls do. “Oh no. That can happen,” Gabrielle says. “For example, Rita’s really good but she has a thing for barbecued chicken. Her vision is so good that she can spot it out of nowhere. We used to let Rita out for hours at a time but we had to stop because we would loose sight of her and we’d always find her eating barbecued chicken somewhere.”

Gabrielle explains that birds of prey are sexually dimorphic; the female is always much larger than the male, and much more territorial as well. You can’t put two females together in an aviary or they will fight. Even Gabrielle’s relationship with Rita is slightly precarious. “You develop a link with the bird you work with every day. There is a confidence that develops, but nothing more. The bird will respond to a total stranger as long as they have food in their hand.” Despite Rita’s apparent aloofness, she did come over to Gabrielle’s apartment for a sleepover one night when it was too late to take her back to the aviary. “The birds are like our kids. We love them very much.”

Gabrielle and Rita don’t only work at the landfill. They also provide an extremely important service at airports, where Rita is responsible for frightening away large migratory birds, such as Canada geese. The frequency of birdstrike collisions with airplanes is staggering, as are the potential losses in terms of lives and money. “Its a really serious job. That accident a couple years ago at LaGuardia airport in New York was caused by a Canada goose.”

It’s an absurd sort of travesty how the winged creatures that inspired us to flight have become obstructions on our own aerial pathways, slaughtered by engines and jet propellers. Yet, it’s also remarkable that birds are the ones to resolve this conflict by clearing the skies for our clumsy aircrafts. In the sky, as on the landfill, birds of prey labour to circumvent the consequences of our disastrous ambitions. Above the landfill wasteland, Rita monitors the mosaic of decaying filth with precise vision, seeming almost able to unravel our human-made predicament.

Jordan Coulombe is fascinated by beauty and filth. He has a background in sexuality studies and print culture, and likes to collect dirty books. Although he’s never held a bird of prey, he was once attacked by an owl while riding his bike. He met Gabrielle Théroux in the summer of 2008 and has been full of questions ever since.