RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Training wild animals may seem like an oxymoron, but that's exactly how falconer Jorge Herrera protects mounds of garbage at a landfill near Corona, Calif.
A 1-year-old brown and creme-colored falcon named Serena sits on Herrera's thick leather glove as he stands near mounds of trash, her eyes and head hooded to calm her, as she wraps sharp curved talons around his protected fingers. In front of them is Serena's prey: swarms of seagulls flying over trash.
El Sobrante landfill spokeswoman Miriam Cardenas said her company has hired trained falconers for about 10 years to prevent seagulls from taking trash they think is food into nearby neighborhoods. The inland site attracts birds that often fly to the coast.
Before falconers, El Sobrante officials used noisemakers to scare the birds, but it was mostly ineffective, Cardenas said.
Though more expensive, falconers are worth preventing thousands of birds from picking up trash, then discarding it in backyards when they cannot digest it, she said.
Falconry is an ancient practice involving extensive training of raptors -- birds of prey, which hunt other animals for food -- to return from flight to their trainer and to hunt wild game.
Some experts believe falconry originated around 5,000 B.C. in Mongolia while others say it could have older beginnings in the Middle East. Over the years, the practice evolved from a necessity to survive into a sport for royalty and a status symbol.
Today, falconers such as Herrera train birds to protect landfills from seagulls and to guard upscale beachfront restaurants where the food of diners is often targeted by seagulls. Herrera also uses his birds to scare other birds away from tarmacs, where they can get caught in jet engines, and to protect vineyards.
Herrera spends six days a week, 10 hours a day at the landfill, and said he has decreased the gull population dramatically since he started three years ago.
"I had thousands when I first started. Now it's about 300 to 400" gulls that still attempt to steal trash, Herrera, 32, said.
Although Herrera's work is effective, some gulls still return. But young birds that have been trained by older birds are not returning, Herrera said. He doesn't expect the problem to be completely eliminated, just reduced.
Eight falcons and a hawk are used daily and rotated in to save energy; Herrera sends them up when gulls are within about 100 feet of the debris. They fly for a few minutes, circling the gulls as Herrera approaches the flocks, training the falcons to follow them.
"This is nature taking care of itself," Herrera said.
The birds' naturally keen eyesight, maneuverability and speed make them ideal candidates for the job.
Falconry requires years of training, an apprenticeship and a license through the state Department of Fish and Game.
"This is 24-7. I don't take vacations. They're being taken care of around the clock," Herrera said. The falcons can cost several thousand dollars each and require continuous maintenance. They have tracking devices attached to their ankles.
But for falconers like Herrera, it's a way of life he loves, requiring a lot of work for the priceless reward of harnessing nature.
(Reach Leslie Parrilla at lparrillape.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)