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Baltimore County’s landfill may soon have hawk patrol to force unwanted birds to ‘get outta dodge’

On any given day, hundreds of birds gather at Baltimore County’s landfill in White Marsh, an unincorporated community just west of aptly named Bird River which drains into Gunpowder River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. These massive flocks of birds from a murder of crows to a colony of seagulls are doing what birds do: pooping and eating, then dropping landfill trash in nearby neighborhoods.

And that’s not a fun reality for residents, good for environmental water quality, or the sanity of neighbors. So Baltimore County officials are considering hiring some aerial muscle to frighten away the nuisance birds.

Early last year, Dan Vitilio, who lives in nearby Kingsville, made a trip to the landfill to dump some trash and saw hundreds of birds, gorging and dropping their calling cards.

“A lot of cars go over there,” said Vitilio, who has been a master falconer for more than 40 years. “Homeowners drop their trash off and they have to go to the car wash after because that’s how bad the birds are just messing everywhere.”

While at the landfill, Vitilio made county officials an offer.

“He came out and I think he was dumping one day at the landfill and he was like ‘there are birds everywhere and I know that my hawk could help with this,” said Nick Rodricks, the chief of the county’s solid waste management bureau. “So at the time we’re like, yeah definitely if you want to come show us how it works that would be really neat.”

Rodricks said it’s a mix of birds that belly up to the landfill table, including seagulls, crows, grackles and the occasional protected bird of prey – bald eagle.

“We don’t like to have a ton of birds around because they do poop on stuff and also they will carry materials elsewhere,” Rodricks, the county director said. “So we want to keep all of the trash at the landfill. We don't want it to fly elsewhere and the birds do a good job of that.”

In March 2022, Vitilio brought his four-year-old Harris’s Hawk for a one day ‘patrol’ of the sky around the landfill. It’s a bird born in Texas, dark brown with yellow legs and beak, as well as chestnut red on its wings. The hawk wasn’t there to kill. It was there to send a message to its brethren up to no good.

Vitilio said the hawk flew from one place at the landfill to another.

“So they might hit a tree then fly to a building then they might fly to a tractor that’s on the property. So we just keep them on the ground basically. But every time they fly, every bird knows what is danger and what’s not.”

Vitilio said when birds see the hawk’s wings flapping they “say, ok, we’ve got to get out of Dodge.”

In no time the landfill birds scattered, according to Brian Lavigne, an engineer with the bureau of solid waste.

“Literally every single bird on the ground just took off like a giant flock, Lavigne said. “You couldn’t even see them in the sky anymore. They just went out everywhere.”

That one day in March 2022 was a freebie. Lavigne and Rodricks, the county employees, floated the idea to their supervisor of hiring the hawk.

Now Vitilio and county officials are talking turkey about a potential contract. Vitilio said it would take several weeks of hawk patrolling then after that occasional fly-bys as needed.

“You have to shoo them away and move them on,” Vitilio said. “The first three or four weeks are the most important.”

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said hiring the hawk sounds like common sense.

“We listen to our employees,” Olszewski said. “I was really surprised to learn that one hawk could patrol an entire landfill.”

Money for the hawk is in the Department of Public Works and Transportation’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1 according to Erica Palmisano, Olszewski’s press secretary,

She did not know how much money had been set aside.

Both Olszewski and the County Council will need to sign off on spending any money.

“We gave them a proposal,” Vitilio said. “If they want it done it can be fixed next week.”

Vitilio runs a wedding events business, Wedding Doves for Love, at his home on 15 acres in Kingsville. He has white pigeons that look like doves. They can be released at the wedding, then they find their way back home.

One of his hawks can deliver the ring to the bride.

He has a zebra named Wild Child. Vitilio plans to break Wild Child so she will pull a bride in a carriage.

“If she lets me ride her, I’m going to pull the trigger and build a Cinderella Carriage,” Vitilio said. “Everyone can get a horse and buggy. Nobody can get a zebra and buggy. Everybody has a job here.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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