BANGOR – The dockside house of the Navy Assignment 1 was mobbed by Seagull No. 2s.
The hood channel The pier that houses the majority of the country’s ballistic missile submarines – whose primary duty is to retaliate against a nuclear attack on the United States – had recently been bombarded with seagull poo, dirtying the subs, facilities and even labor.
“Hot, drier summers have made working on the pier awful,” said Ed Ingles, executive director of Trident Refit Facility, part of Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. “We were throwing our arms up in the air, thinking, ‘How are we going to solve this problem?'”
That’s when the Navy turned to five Harris hawks named Daisy, Amelia, Marie, Amber, and Delta. Their job: to make the pier as inhospitable to gulls as gulls have made it to humans in recent years.
“It’s just their presence that makes the gulls uncomfortable and keeps them away,” said Gretchen Albrecht, a zookeeper-turned-falconer hired by the Navy to help solve the problem. “Seagulls poop a lot, and their defense is to poop on whoever is bothering them. But when they see us coming, they go away.”
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“A crazy idea” come true
Bangor Pier is home to eight of the nation’s 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Along with land-based bombers and missiles, submarines promote “strategic deterrence”, with the ability to retaliate against an enemy with a nuclear attack. Submarines have the added advantage of launching missiles from a hidden location underwater.
But as of 2020, the strategic deterrent mission at Bangor Delta Jetty needed a little seagull deterrence.
“The gulls started to get angry and would go after these poor workers here,” said Albrecht, who works for Kennewick-based Inka Falcon.
And that’s not all. Bird feathers would clog the vents, their stench spreading to every corner of the pier named for its shape like the Greek letter.
“It was just obnoxious,” Ingles said. “And the problem that was getting worse every year.”
The director of the Trident Refit Facility, whose nearly 2,000 employees ensure Ohio-class submarines are always ready to go to sea, said bringing birds of prey to the pier “sounds like an idea crazy woman”. But they were willing to think outside the box: Navy Engineering Command helped bring candidate falconers to Bangor.
This isn’t the first time the Navy has called on wildlife for help. It is the same base where, in 2010, the Navy introduced Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to help detect possible underwater terrorist acts.
Albrecht, who once worked at the Woodland Park Zoo raptor center, was hired to help alongside fellow falconer Patrick Portrey. They introduced five female Harris’s hawks to go along with the federal Department of Agriculture’s efforts, a process that prevents gull eggs from hatching.
Harris’s hawks are not meant to harm gulls; their bellies are already full, thanks to a regular diet of quail. Their job is to intimidate them into hatching their families elsewhere, Albrecht said.
Falcons have adapted – and been effective
Hawks’ resumé in the reduction business spans about a decade, from 10-year-old Daisy to Amber and Delta, who hatched earlier this year. They made good teammates as naturally social birds, Albrecht said. They needed little time to adjust to the hustle and bustle of the pier.
“Within a few weeks they were like, ‘Yeah sure, I’m going to land on a forklift and a crane,'” she said.
The program worked, say Navy leaders at Trident Refit Facility. The gull population has been nearly halved in the past two years, Ingles said.
“We really had good success,” Albrecht said.
Gulls are smart. Some of the smarter – and more stubborn – simply wait for the day-working hawks to leave the dock. But with much of the workforce present during the day, the impact of the hawks has been significant, said Mike Hatfield, spokesman for the reclamation facility.
Albrecht said it was also fun to watch the hawks become a point of pride on the pier. Workers are often eager to chat and watch the hawks in action.
“They bring a smile to their faces,” Albrecht said.