Winging it: La Valencia finds a unique solution to a pesky problem
by Mariko Lamb
Published - 09/28/11 - 03:54 PM | 5291 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pearl, a six-year-old Harris's hawk, flies about the La Valencia Hotel grounds to deter seagulls from roosting on the property. She doesn't attack the gulls, but her natural predatory nature is intimidating to the gulls. DON BALCH. Illustration by Kendra Hartmann
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La Valencia Hotel is certainly blessed with its oceanfront location overlooking La Jolla Cove. The hotel takes advantage of its sweeping coastal vistas with dining establishments, like the award-winning Sky Room and Whaling Bar & Grill restaurants, the Mediterranean Room’s casual dining patio and its outdoor conference, catering and wedding facilities.

One downfall to its location, however, is the presence of some unwanted seaside visitors that are out to swoop up free meals from patrons at the hotel’s outdoor restaurants: seagulls.

Justin Wilson, the hotel’s director of food and beverage services, said the birds have pestered guests at the hotel’s restaurants on several occasions.

In one instance, a guest was dining alone and was served one of the restaurants’ large pork chop entrees.

“The gentleman was thrilled when he was presented with the dish and took the time to tuck his napkin into the neck of his shirt and prepare to enjoy his entrée. Just as his fork and knife were in his hand, a seagull plopped down onto his table and snatched away his pork chop,” he said. “It was a sizeable chop too. We were surprised the seagull was able to carry it.”

The gentleman opted to dine in his room where another pork chop was rushed up, free of lurking poachers.

“We had another instance where a guest was given her breakfast and screamed quite loudly when a seagull’s wing hit her face as the seagull dive-bombed into her chef’s omelet,” he said. “She was quite startled.”

Wilson said the hotel has attempted to get rid of the birds using various methods, including installing a bird wire atop the roof, but the birds “figured it out.”

After some brainstorming, management figured out a unique solution to rid the persistent thieves without the use of chemicals, noisemakers or violent methods.

The management enlisted the help of falconer Larry Cosgrove from Airstrike Bird Control, who comes to the hotel three days each week and uses predatory birds to scare off seagulls.

The birds — Peepers the owl and Pearl the hawk — are highly trained not to attack guests, steal food or harm any nearby wildlife and Airstrike Bird Control is highly regulated on both state and federal levels. Cosgrove iterated, however, that the birds are still wild animals.

“Ethically, we would not be able to do this if they were not wild,” he said. “If a perfectly good bird is kept in a cage and not allowed to do its thing, that goes against its nature.”

At the moment, the birds are not permitted to take full flight at the hotel, preventing a natural turf war from developing. For now, Cosgrove allows the birds to take off on short, controlled flights or he keeps the birds tethered beneath the seagulls to discourage them from swooping down on guests.

“Once the hawks or owls are above the seagulls, their natural inclination is to attack. When he keeps them tethered beneath the gulls, they simply sit there and the seagulls get agitated. The hawks and owls seem to not even notice or care,” Wilson said. “We are not trying to eliminate or harm any of the seagulls, but rather encourage them to move.”

Cosgrove said the number of seagull nests at the site have dropped from 100 to 10 just from the gulls’ exposure to the predatory birds.

“After six weeks, I noticed that there’s half of the birds there,” Cosgrove said. “There is a definite difference. I don’t think they’ll ever completely go away, but we can keep it in control and keep the numbers down.”

He said the process is ongoing. Over time, seagulls will begin to think of the property as their natural predators’ lair and steer clear of the area. The predatory birds, however, must make regular appearances in order for that long-term goal to take effect.

“Not only is it a cool visual effect, it also is the most natural and effective solution,” Wilson said. “It’s humane in that it allows nature to run its course.”

The unique solution is still in its early stages and the process may take time, but it could prove to be the long-term answer to the issue of those pesky seaside visitors.

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