As flying gulls searched for a snack at the Juneau landfill Tuesday, Tony Silva stepped out of his bulldozer and fired a "screamer" into the air.
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Pyrotechnics are just one of many tactics used to spook the birds away from the dump, where they like to feed. Biologists and landfill workers also deploy lasers, fake coyotes, "banger" fireworks, paint balls and plain yelling.
It usually works. On Sunday, however, a bald eagle may have sneaked in to grab a deer head before crashing into a nearby Alaska Electric Light & Power transmission system, said Gayle Wood, an AEL&P spokeswoman. The eagle caused a brief power outage that affected about 10,000 people.
Landfill district manager Eric Vance suggested the head may have come from a kill outside the landfill.
The effort to scare off birds started last year when the gull population had to be brought under control for safety reasons at nearby Juneau International Airport, Vance said.
In January 2006, federal biologists and crew had to haze about 700 gulls and 50 eagles a day. This month, that number was down to about 80 gulls and 20 eagles per day.
"It's a job," said Silva, a heavy-equipment operator for Capitol Disposal. "It's a full-time job."
Keeping birds off the landfill is indeed an endless task in the winter, as hungry gulls, crows, ravens and bald eagles look for quick meals.
Last year, the outdoor equipment was coated with guano, thanks to the birds, Vance said. But the landfill brought in government scientists and received permits to disturb the animals. The equipment's not white anymore.
The eagles and ravens are smart enough to stay away when the shells are fired, Vance said. But the gulls don't give up.
"They're very persistent," Vance said. "I have a new appreciation for what gulls are capable of."
The landfill has a "lethal take permit" that authorizes killing certain birds, said Karen Blejwas, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Landfill officials may kill up to 150 gulls, 50 crows and 50 ravens, she said. The numbers are based on a United States Department of Agriculture wildlife services assessment, she said.
"We expect the numbers killed will be less, particularly for crows and ravens," Blejwas said.
The landfill is also allowed to "haze" a bird, including any bald eagle that may fly in from its perch in trees around the landfill.
"You're basically disturbing it, chasing it, trying to chase it away in some manner without hurting it or killing it," Blejwas said. "You're not killing or injuring the bird, but you are trying to chase it out of there."
Sometimes USDA biologists will use noise-makers or bright lights.
"You want to convince the birds it's not a good place to hang out," Blejwas said.
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"Flashing the laser light kind of freaks them out," she added. "It disturbs them. Then they all take off and circle around, and either land back in or fly off."
While bird-hazing may seem like fun to some people, Vance said the work is hard.
"After about a week, it really does get old," he said. "They're out there in 40 mph winds, getting pelted by rain and snow."
Though bird numbers are down this year, biologists and workers at the landfill will continue their efforts. They monitor the numbers and try to stay on top of them.
"We knew it was something that had to be done for public safety," Vance said. "And it makes it more attractive for the community, so they don't have to worry about birds flying over and bombing them.
"Our goal is to have a bird-free operation year-round."
Ken Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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