Alina Blankenship's clients include airfields, stadiums, wharves, cities, golf courses and dams where opportunistic birds catch fish. Image Credit: Bloomberg photo by Tojo Andrianarivo

Alina Blankenship

Master Falconer at Sky Guardian Falconry

West Linn, Ore.

The job: Falconry-based abatement. "We use trained falcons, hawks and owls as security guards to protect areas where pest birds congregate," said Alina Blankenship, 52. She leverages the predator-prey relationship that is hardwired into birds to avoid their predators, to deter gulls, starlings, Canada geese, pigeons, sparrows and other fowl. Unlike scarecrows or loud noises, "the birds will never acclimate to that." Her clients include airfields, stadiums, wharves, cities, golf courses and dams where opportunistic birds catch fish. In Oregon, she works with many agriculture companies, such as vineyards, which often sit in the migration paths of starlings that gather in groups of tens of thousands and can decimate a crop in minutes. "It's like a mob rush at a grocery store," Blankenship said.

Lifestyle: The schedule is dawn until dusk for agriculture jobs, on contracts of one to 16 weeks. Some falconers live on-site in a trailer, but that's not for Blankenship. "I go home," she said. Her jobs can shift with the crops, from cherries to blueberries to apples to grapes. She also cares for a dozen working birds (nine falcons, three hawks), plus four owls and a raven for education programs, with the help of a feeder.

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Pay: Farmers pay $600 to $1,000 a day while urban or dam contracts can pay $750 to $1,200 a day. Jobs are often several days or weeks in a row - there's no weekends off in falconry. Sky Guardian Falconry is her company, so there's no middleman.

Backstory: Blankenship, who's originally from Long Island, was working in book publishing. One day she helped a friend remove an entrapped Cooper's hawk from a garage and was inspired to begin working with the birds when the hawk briefly perched on her arm. She apprenticed with a falconry master for two years while also volunteering for five years at a wildlife rehabilitation facility. "I did her education programs, taking her great horned owl to kindergartens," Blankenship said. Eventually, she became a licensed wildlife educator. "When people are eight inches away from these giant yellow eyes, it's transformative for them." A few years later, she discovered abatement - which the government began licensing only 15 years ago - and which she thought would improve her falconry. "In a year I'll have birds in the air more than some falconers will in their entire careers."

How it works: The goal is to teach pest birds that the neighborhood is just terrible. If 10,000 birds fly over a crop, Blankenship will send her saker falcon up into the air. "She's a winged border collie, and she escorts them off the property," she said. Some of the birds might scatter onto the ground, and to move them, she'll send out her aplomado falcon, the equivalent of a chihuahua. "She'll fly out of my car window and down that row, scare away all the birds that were hiding there, and fly back into my cupholder." The strategy shifts depending on factors like the weather, season and type of pest bird: For example, blueberry crops attract nesting birds like robins and finches. The falcons never kill - they just reroute unwanted birds - because Blankenship provides just enough food to keep their energy high but catch-and-kill motivation low.

Worst day at work: "When everybody doesn't get home," she says. Falcons can be injured by barbed wire or power lines, get attacked or be hit by automobiles.