The key to the pigeon problem at this California train station? A falcon named Pac-Man

Updated July 21, 2022 8:05 a.m. ET

A California Bay Area streetcar station has turned to an unlikely hero to try to solve its pigeon problem: Pac-Man.

No, not the perpetually hungry video game character. This Pac-Man is a roughly 6-year-old, 1.5-pound Harris Hawk who loves quail, a particularly social bird of prey native to the American Southwest.

He and his handler work for a pest control company called Falcon Force, which BART hired in late May to help disperse pesky pigeons away from its station in the San Francisco suburb of El Cerrito del Norte.

“Just about anywhere you could perch there was a pigeon,” falconer Ricky Ortiz said of the scene where the duo started.

Like many other transit hubs, the station’s oasis of nesting ledges, signs, platforms and pipe ducts make it the perfect environment for pigeons to thrive, says Falcon Force owner , Vahe Alaverdian. And they can raise up to six broods (with two babies each) per year, which adds up quickly.

It’s not just that pigeons and their droppings are an eyesore – they’re also dangerous to health, as they could carry bacteria or parasites.

BART says he’s tried many pigeon-killing tactics over the years, from installing spikes and bird netting to introducing owl statues and experimenting with noise. BART spokesman Chris Filippi says the station set out to explore another option in response to concerns raised by passengers, many of whom were returning to trains for the first time since the pandemic.

And so far, Pac-Man seems to be rising to the challenge with flying colors. The three eight-hour days he and Ortiz spend each week at the largely outdoor resort have already made a noticeable difference.

Ortiz says that after the first week or so he’s seen about half as many pigeons, and at this point he and Pac-Man are just going around to take care of the few that “still like to come in and go out”.

“What we have here is a really new approach that’s only been around for a few months now, and it’s proven to be very effective,” says Filippi. “We are really impressed with the impact this is having.”

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Pac-Man flies over one of the station’s platforms. It doesn’t take much work for him to disperse the stray pigeons, although he does occasionally chase them away.

The name of the game is surprising pigeons

So what exactly does Pac-Man do, if not gobble up row after row of pigeons?

The raptor’s job is to prevent pigeons from nesting in that particular area – and due to nature’s predator-prey relationship, it doesn’t take a lot of work.

Ortiz explains that because pigeons are naturally fearful when they sense predators nearby, Pac-Man’s mere presence is enough to scare them away in most cases. But he sometimes chases them, in which case “they learn very quickly that it’s not a safe place to hang out.”

“It just becomes a hostile environment for pigeons to exist there, to coexist there, with a native falcon,” says Alaverdian. “So they just cross the street into the other parking lot and find the docks and so on to get on with life…without hurting themselves.”

Alaverdian, a master falconer who has worked in the area for years, says incidents sometimes occur in this area. After all, a predator won’t be motivated to hunt a species if it knows it won’t be able to eat its catch. But Falcon Force trains its birds to return at the call of a whistle, in exchange for a treat of something like a quail or a rabbit.

This way, the hawks won’t come into direct contact with potentially disease-carrying pigeons, and the parasites – which are considered an invasive and unregulated species – can live to see another day.

Pac-Man and Ortiz work for a pest control company called Falcon Force, whose customers range from agricultural growers to industrial sites.

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NPR

Pac-Man and Ortiz work for a pest control company called Falcon Force, whose customers range from agricultural growers to industrial sites.

Not all hawks are qualified for the job

Pac-Man carries a GPS transmitter in case he wanders off, as required by state law, but Ortiz says he never had to use it. This came as a bit of a surprise, as he had expected Pac-Man to initially be a little unnerved by the sound of trains coming and going.

Instead, Ortiz says, he was “very stable right off the bat.”

He and Alaverdian attribute this to the nature of his species. Harris’s hawks are the only social species of raptor, hunting and feeding together like wolves. This makes them great birds for this type of task.

“Because of their social nature, they are the perfect and most adaptable species to assume this kind of relationship that we have with these birds – in tight places, in public, with noises [and] trains coming and going, etc. adds Alaverdian.

And it’s not just that they aren’t easily phased by their surroundings. Ortiz also believes that the social nature of the species allows for better relationships with their masters.

“Some birds are a little aloof, but I’ve yet to come across a Harris’s hawk that hasn’t had some sort of bond with their falconer,” he says.

Different species have different strengths, and Alaverdian says it acquires many of its second-hand birds as retired or licensed falconry birds that didn’t exactly meet the needs of their owners. Such was the case with Pac-Man, who was originally recruited by another falconer to hunt hares but was not equipped for the job due to his relatively small size.

So Pac-Man came to Falcon Force after being calmed down in captivity and designated a perfect bird to intimidate small birds. Alaverdian says that also means he’s not interested in anything in the field — so Chihuahua BART riders needn’t worry (although owners be warned: dogs panic Pac-Man, so he might yell at them).

Self-described bird and shark lover Tim Gibson stops to admire Pac-Man and chat with Ortiz.

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Self-described bird and shark lover Tim Gibson stops to admire Pac-Man and chat with Ortiz.

Pac-Man becomes a household name

But commuters aren’t really concerned about Pac-Man. In fact, as Ortiz says, he became something of a local celebrity.

“A lot of people get excited because they can’t see a bird of prey up close,” he says. “They are usually very interested and have the usual questions.”

Most people just want to get as close as possible and get a good look at the bird. But some fans are particularly devoted.

Ortiz says he saw one person jump three consecutive trains in order to check out Pac-Man, and another made the trip from the Monterrey area just to see him.

While Ortiz was chatting with NPR, a man came by to see if the bird he spotted on the rig was actually a Harris’s hawk. Tim Gibson explained that he loves birds and used binoculars to study them in the wild.

“Beautiful, beautiful bird,” he said. “I’m sorry to bother you guys, I just had to see it.”

Gibson has noticed the pigeon problem in the area and thinks this is a promising solution. He adds: “We just have to stay away.”

This audio for this story was produced by Ben Abrams and edited by Raquel Maria Dillon.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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James H. Wright