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Q+A: Kort Clayton of Integrated Avian Solutions

Falconer Kort Clayton holds his Harris's hawk named Clive.

A hood is used to keep Clive the Harris’s hawk calm until they get to a good launch site. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

This piece is part of our PDXtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

For nearly five years, falconer Kort Clayton + his company Integrated Avian Solutions have partnered with Downtown Portland Clean & Safe to prevent murders — large groups of crows, that is — on the city’s streets.

As Portlanders know, the black birds seem to have a special affinity for our city, creating a slew of issues. Four nights a week, Kort leads the “Crow Patrol,” which uses trained raptors to humanely move the caw-cophany to a more suitable location. Here’s a look behind the wings.

Kort surveys a large gathering of crows from the stairwell of a parking structure. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Kort surveys a large gathering of crows from the stairwell of a parking structure. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Q: Do we know why 15,000+ crows choose to roost in Portland?

A: The basic story is that crows always roost communally in the winter and they’re aggregating in well-lit urban areas. Another piece of the puzzle is thermal protection: warmth from the city + wind blocks from the buildings. They’re also safer from predators here.

Q: What makes their presence such a problem?

A: Our downtown is structurally complex, meaning it’s not just sidewalks + streets. There are benches and infrastructure, especially along the Transit Mall. All those elements are vulnerable to overhead droppings from birds, and that stuff’s not easy to clean up. It’s very labor intensive, and it was getting recontaminated every single night. That mess was quite a burden for many businesses and organizations. I remember a time when people would carry umbrellas to and from work, whether it was raining or not, and it was all about protecting themselves from crow poop.

Crows gather by the thousands in downtown Portland during the winter. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Crows gather by the thousands in downtown Portland during the winter. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Ben McBee

Q: How does your business solve this issue?

A: Falconry-based bird abatement is not new. It certainly wasn’t invented by me. But, normally, there’s no hawks flying around at night. So, when all of a sudden there’s a hawk in the same tree where crows are trying to sleep, it drives them nuts. Then, you have the falconer involved who can see where they go. They fly from one tree to another, and we follow them, like a shark in a swimming pool. We certainly don’t have to kill them or even be very aggressive with them, it’s just that incredibly uncomfortable presence that changes their behavior. We do enough of that, and the birds will look for a new place to hang out.

Harris's hawks are very intelligent and have a higher tolerance for the distractions + hazards of the city. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Harris’s hawks are very intelligent and have a higher tolerance for the distractions + hazards of the city. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Ben McBee

Q: Is there a specific species that you utilize?

A: We use Harris’s hawks for this project for a couple of reasons. They’re one of the most intelligent + social of all the raptors. They’re not native to Oregon, but they are found in the southwestern US and throughout South America, so they can handle a little bit of cold. More than anything, they’re a desert species; they do a lot of their hunting or foraging early in the morning or late evening. That’s when the light is a little dimmer, so they tend to have larger eyes that handle low-light conditions better.

Q: How much training is necessary to get them used to being in the city?

A: We enter into the downtown work with a little more caution than with other projects. It’s a tricky and somewhat dangerous environment. You know, the train comes by, and there’s people walking around with dogs, and there’s all kinds of hazards that we have to try to keep them away from. But, they also have a really mild temperament, so they’re very tolerant of things. They just kind of roll with it and sit on top of the building and just take it all in and don’t get too upset by it. It’s always a work in progress.

The basic training with any raptor is essentially the same. They’re predators, so they respond well to food rewards. We blow a whistle and hold up a piece of food in a leather glove. We have a lure that we can swing around to get their attention when they’re a little further away. All those things happen in about four to six weeks. All our birds are bred in captivity, but essentially they’re raised by their parents and have no human contact. When we get them, they’re wild, kind of spiteful, and a little angry. We work through that. That takes about six weeks, and then they can fly free.

Kort feeds Clive + his other hawks starling wings as a reward. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Kort feeds Clive + his other hawks starling wings as a reward. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Q: Do the hawks ever catch a crow?

A: Our birds are more than capable of it, but they mostly don’t bother because it’s easier to get food from us than it is to actually chase those things down and catch them. It is very rare, but it has happened a couple of times over the years. Mostly, we find that sweet spot, where they know the routine, which is follow the falconer around and land on buildings and street posts, and then come back for snacks.

Q: Does that dynamic ever shift?

A: Well, [crows] fight back in that it’s a standard behavior for crows and a few other species of birds. They call it mobbing. And the idea is, they gang up and use their numbers to try to intimidate the raptor that they don’t want to be around.

But the reality of that is it only works in a natural scenario when the raptor is trying to be somewhat stealthy and get a meal. The last thing they need is a hundred, or a dozen crows, chasing them around, making a bunch of noise, and alerting everything on the landscape to their presence. It looks aggressive, but a bald eagle or even a smaller hawk is not at any risk from a dozen crows. It just blows their cover and throws their game off.

Most of the time, the abatement process is passive. The hawk's presence is enough to scare them away. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Most of the time, the abatement process is passive. The hawk’s presence is enough to scare them away. | Photo by Ben McBee/PDXtoday

Ben McBee

Q: When does the season start?

A: We start in October and we run through the middle of April. The crow roosting season starts just a little earlier than that. We do have some crows that roost in downtown, most of the summer, but it’s a smaller number.

Q: How many falconers does it take to patrol the area?

A: We have a team of four that addresses about 72 blocks. It’s a highly dynamic situation, so our reality is pretty much different every week. Early in the season, it’s a fight. They are dug in and hard to move. Night after night we come back at it and push them out, and they come back the next day, and we push them out again, so it’s over and over. As we progress, we’re able to usher them out to the periphery, and a good number of them go toward the river + waterfront park.

Q: Why did you become a falconer?

A: I was 20 at the time, in college, studying biology. I’d just recently arrived on that as a major, and was inspired by a professor who did a lot of work with owls and other raptors, and I thought, well these are pretty cool animals. They hunt. I hunt. I started encountering falconry literature and it sounded interesting, so I thought I’d give it a try, and it stuck. It was a hobby for 15 years, and for the last 15 years it’s been a business.