Unfriendly skies: Birds of prey help rid downtown Modesto of messy starlings

Tens of thousands of birds have created major messes the past couple of winters in downtown Modesto.

The starlings’ waste crunches beneath pedestrians’ feet or, worse, falls on them as the culprits sit among tree branches. It stains vehicles, attracts rodents and, because it’s corrosive, can damage buildings’ roofs, HVAC systems and solar panels.

This season, the Downtown Modesto Partnership and the city have partnered on what they hope will be a solution: more birds.

They hired Atascadero-based Airstrike Bird Control, which late last week began bringing in raptors, setting them free to fly after sunset, when the starlings return downtown to roost after foraging during the day, said partnership President and CEO Josh Bridegroom.

The well-trained falcons don’t kill the birds, he said. Their mere presence the next few weeks should be enough to move the starlings out of downtown.

Wednesday evening, Airstrike’s Jennifer Reilly was working on Tenth Street Plaza and nearby streets with her Harris hawk, named Hegg. Hawks are more effective than falcons in places like downtown, with its many buildings and trees that provide coverage for the starlings, as opposed to when they sit on power lines, she said.

Falcons’ main technique, called stooping, requires more open space, which allows them to dive-bomb a flock of birds in flight. By contrast, Reilly can simply release Hegg and he’ll follow her around from tree to tree. He looks to her for his food, and she needs to keep him just hungry enough that he follows commands.

“I don’t want to continue flying him if he’s running a bit heavy, so that he doesn’t just take off and do his own thing or go sit in his tree by himself and not really care about what’s going on around here,” she said.

Should she let Hegg get too hungry, he definitely would try for a starling if he saw the opportunity, Reilly said. “But the flight style of these guys (the starlings), they’re so smart that it’s not very likely he’s going to catch something.”

The “hazing” Hegg does works best when starlings are closely grouped, she said. The flock mentality means that once a few birds get spooked, they soon all get spooked together.

‘Hard pressure’

At the outset, Airstrike’s birds really have to establish their presence, putting “hard pressure” on the starlings by being out every night for a couple of weeks, Reilly said. Then, if things are looking good and the falconers are seeing dramatically fewer starlings in areas of heaviest concentration, they can cut back to just a few days a week of putting up the hawks. But it’s still a process of months, she said.

The power of birds of prey to intimidate was clear the winter of 2012 or ‘13, Bridegroom said, when a pair of them took up residence atop the DoubleTree Hotel.

“Within a week or two, all the starlings downtown were gone,” he said. “And they didn’t come back for a good three years, at least in any real numbers.”

But then, the burgeoning downtown starling population became a problem again in 2017, and was worse last year, Bridegroom said. This fall, the birds began to grow thick in the trees in late October, he said. “And so we were just like, ‘We’re going to head these guys off.’”

The nonprofit partnership and the city split the $15,000 cost to hire Airstrike, whose president and CEO, Brad Felger, has more than 40 years’ experience training birds of prey.

Heading off the starlings meant that Airstrike started work about a month earlier than originally planned, Reilly said. Some trees have yet to lose their leaves, and when that happens, the starlings will be more exposed and vulnerable to the raptors’ intimidation.

Reilly has seen that a couple of peregrine falcons have a nest atop Brenden Theatres, and though they’re “definitely doing a little bit of work,” it’s not enough to put pressure on the starlings “down here where it matters” in the trees.

In addition to releasing Hegg, Reilly uses an extension pole to reach into the trees and whack the branches. It really draws the attention of downtown visitors who are curious about what she’s doing. Most people she’s spoken with think the work to drive out the starlings is “pretty cool,” she said, because they don’t like their cars being pooped on or, if dining on an uncovered patio, they worry about something plopping down on their plates.

‘We all need more nature’

As she worked Wednesday, Cameron and Stephanie Guinn were nearby on the patio of Ralston’s Goat, and were surprised to hear the starlings are being chased out.

Cameron said he appreciates the beautiful aerial ballet the birds do in the evening, and also likes the noise they make. He typically uses the downtown garages, but if he parks on the streets, he can deal with some bird droppings. “I have no complaints” about the birds. “I can wash the car.”

Stephanie added that “we all need more nature” in our lives, and the starlings’ presence is “part of making downtown more appealing to people.” As for droppings on vehicles, she said, “it’s part of living on the planet and sharing the planet with them.”

A couple of doors down from the Guinns on the plaza, several people playing Pokemon Go kept looking from their phone screens up at the trees before moving beneath an awning.

Sheldon Wallace said he enjoys the noise the starlings make but sees the problem with them dropping their waste on sidewalks, where then people step in it and “track that into the restaurants or other businesses.”

Friend Justin Navarro said the city and the partnership could be spending the $15,000 on plenty of bigger issues than “helpless birds.” Let the birds be, he said.

“You know how many starlings are out here?” he said. “You know what’s good about those? They’re eating the bugs here. This is a high-traffic area, and I don’t see a bug in front of me right now. The weather’s still nice for mosquitoes, and there’s not a mosquito in sight.”

Christina Navarro agreed, and added that she loves watching the starlings’ flight patterns.

“You could spend hours if you’re the kind of person to appreciate the wildlife, even if it’s just local birds,” she said. “Honestly, it’s one of the only pleasurable things about coming downtown. Among the various other sights you can see, the birds are the least of my concerns.”

Making downtown less inviting

After foraging in the vineyards and other agricultural areas, the birds in these colder months like to roost overnight in downtown in part because of the warmth retained by the concentration of concrete, asphalt and buildings, Bridegroom said. The falcons will make downtown an “inhospitable and uncomfortable” place for the starlings, he said.

According to the Airstrike website, “Falconry works because pest birds are ‘hard-wired’ to be terrified of raptors — falcons and hawks — which are their natural enemies. Pest birds never get acclimated to raptors, while they will get used to noisemakers such as propane cannons, shotguns or recorded calls.”

In a 2012 Bee article, Andy Johnson, then-maintenance director at the Tenth Street Place city-county headquarters, talked about other efforts to rid downtown of the birds and the mess they make. Trees were wrapped in netting, but that was abandoned because birds became trapped.

“We tried the squawk box that signals ‘Danger! Danger! Danger!’“ Johnson said in the article. “That lasted a day before they realized there was no danger. We tried a fake owl. That lasted a day before they realized he was fake and pooped on him, too.”

He reached out to several falconry groups and had their phone numbers “on speed dial” should the bird swarm return the following winter, Johnson said in 2012, but the fortuitous arrival of the hawks at Brenden apparently solved the problem for a while.

When the starling situation exploded again two years ago, the Downtown Modesto Partnership considered building nesting boxes to attract raptors. But an ornithologist who was consulted said there is no way to ensure the right species will settle in, Bridegroom said Wednesday morning. The birds of prey would have to be nocturnal, like owls.

The downtown Modesto flock has spread itself along several blocks, including Tenth Street Plaza, the DoubleTree, radio towers and sidewalk trees. Partnership crews do early-morning pressure washing of sidewalks, Bridegroom said, but the dried droppings become smelly when wet, so a masking agent has to be used.

Getting the birds to move along is a much preferable alternative to simply cleaning up their waste over and over again, he said.

“It’s going to improve our capacity to serve the district in other ways, because we’re not going to have as much time and energy going into pressure washing all the sidewalks down here every day. That’s a lot of work, and we could have our guys focus more on some of the beautification efforts that were engaged in.”

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.