Oil and Feathers

–From The Wall Street Journal by Hannah Karp–

Until recently, falconry—the ancient art of hunting small game with trained birds of prey—was just a hobby for Michael Gregston, who makes a living leading canoe trips down the Missouri River. But to supplement his income, he has been toting four of his rare hawks and falcons in the bitter cold to an unusual destination for a bird enthusiast: an oil refinery.

“The battle begins when the sun goes down,” said Mr. Gregston, 60 years old.

Donning a bright green hard-hat and fireproof suit on a recent afternoon, he prepared to fly his prized birds into the labyrinth of pipes and towers at the Phillips 66 refinery in Billings, Mont., where thousands of starlings roost each night. With two nearby refineries likely facing similar starling infestations, he said, “I think I have some job security.”

Big oil has never had the most bird-friendly reputation. But refineries across the country are now paying thousands of dollars a day to bring in rare raptors to chase away the nuisance birds that sully their facilities. It is a relatively new form of pest-control that is also becoming popular at farms and vineyards.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife department started issuing commercial falconry licenses six years ago and has only issued 92 as of last month. But refineries say falconry is proving far more effective than old methods like poison, pellet guns or sonar devices, and as the technique takes off, some oil-industry veterans are going soft for the birds, which can travel faster than 200 miles an hour and spot a meal from a great distance. Meanwhile falconers, many of them die-hard conservationists, say they are learning to appreciate the virtues of the oil industry.

“I have friends and associates who tell me I’m working for the enemy—but they’re just real people too,” says falconer Jim Tigan, a former military pilot who has been working to rid Exxon Mobil‘s XOM +0.57% refinery in Torrance, Calif., of pigeons. Mr. Tigan, whose duties for the company also include neutering feral cats and helping Exxon Mobil employees adopt them, says the sprawling guarded plant is a “wildlife oasis.”

Refineries get plagued with all sorts of pests, but starlings, which arrived in the U.S. more than a century ago, have become particularly vexing in recent years—their numbers continue to grow because they hail from Europe and have no natural predators in North America. The tiny birds travel in enormous flocks seeking warmth in the winter months, and their corrosive, slippery droppings pose safety hazards and can cause structural damage.




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