Have raptors, will travel

The desert offered an hospitable, sunny, 80-degree morning in early spring. The conversation on the shaded poolside patio of the Renaissance Esmeralda resort in Indian Wells was collegial and relaxed. The oatmeal, populated with chewy cranberries, was delicious.

But nothing's perfect, and when the Brewer's blackbird flapped its wings and pecked at a blueberry on the flat railing behind my chair, I paused, spoon poised halfway between bowl and mouth, and wondered: Where's the hawk guy?

Oh, right, it was Monday--Ken Miknuk and Ozzy Osbourne had the day off.

Miknuk2 and Hector Indian Wells 3-13.JPG

Miknuk, owner of Winged Solutions, is a master falconer whose skill with Harris' hawks, including Ozzy, and peregrine falcons, such as Hector (pictured, with Miknuk), has proved valuable to managers of resorts, golf facilities, vineyards and landfills beset with avian pests that annoy diners, consume crops and spread filth.

After observing Miknuk and Ozzy at the Esmeralda, a hotel guest who happens to be an executive with Waste Connections, a landfill business, commented that his company spends $10,000-$12,000 a month on bird abatement.

Miknuk works fast and efficiently, like the incredible creatures he directs across the lawn, over the pool and above the patio eaves. Making rounds via golf cart here and at the adjacent Hyatt Regency and Indian Wells Golf Resort clubhouse, Miknuk and his feathered friends keep the intruders away.

The three properties hired Winged Solutions, which is licensed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, several years ago. As Terry Venema, director of engineering for the Renaissance Esmeralda explained, "It was the most efficient way to get rid of blackbirds, grackles and pigeons. We tried everything--stuffed owls, noisemakers, twirling things..." They even tried misting grapeseed oil (which makes birds woozy and disinclined to hang around) in the outdoor public areas, but the wind played havoc with that approach, and it was expensive.

Before Miknuk and Ozzy arrived, Venema said, "guests would complain. ...You'd have two dozen birds sitting on a chair next to you, waiting to steal your french fries."

The properties, which split Miknuk's $60 per hour fee, all have to participate--otherwise, what used to be Esmeralda's problem would simply fly over to its neighbor for blueberries and a side of fries.

Venema couldn't be happier with the bird abatement results; plus, he said, Miknuk is "fun to watch, he's charismatic. Guests like talking to him."

Even if you can't spot the bird in flight, you see immediately there's something weird about the guy wearing cargo shorts and a heavy leather glove up to his left elbow, his neck craned toward the rooms, like a peeping Tom hoping to catch a guest hanging wet swimsuits over the balcony five stories up.

But Miknuk doesn't care about poor laundry deportment, he cares about communicating silently with his bird. He's been doing it since he was 9, and received his state and federal falconer's license at 16. By the time he was 20, he had become a master falconer, a supreme status conferred by the state.

Not just anybody can dictate the flight plan of a 50 mph Harris' hawk winging around the confines of a resort hotel. Being the alpha bird in a flock of raptors is a matter of training and aptitude. Even Miknuk can't fully parse his ability to "talk" to these animals.

In reading his birds' behavior, he said, "There's a thousand things I pick up I consciously don't know."

He puts Ozzy through his paces, and you wonder if the next time he returns to perch on Miknuk's arm he'll present his boss with a bloody blackbird.

That's not how it works, Miknuk explained. Ozzy isn't here to dine, only to terrify. After each flight, Miknuk rewards him with a morsel of quail, then he's ready to swoop off toward the outdoor fire pit, the pool, the waterfall, trailing his jesses--thin leather straps on the bird's leg that enable the falconer to control the bird on the glove or in training.

Tex, Ozzy's Harris' hawk colleague, also has flown today, but Ozzy is a special project. So called, said Miknuk, because "he has as many brain cells as his namesake ... three," Ozzy was a rescue bird suffering from malnutrition and rickets when Miknuk got him. He's also developmentally slow, unlike Hector, who is nicknamed "Hectic" for his flight style and personality.

Hector plies the more generous venues--say, a driving range or vineyard. His speed, which can exceed 200 mph, isn't suitable for more confined quarters. Flying a falcon at the Esmeralda, Miknuk says, "would be like flying a jet in a football stadium."

Winged Solutions is a second career for Miknuk. His work as mechanical engineer in senior management terminated when he was diagnosed with central serous retinopathy. CSR causes blurred and distorted sight--ironic for a guy who now manages a staff whose vision is so acute they can see individual letters on a newspaper from a mile away.

Although Miknuk's love for animals is clear--he also visits school groups in a money-losing venture called Wise Owl Education--he runs a business, and sometimes it relies on technology as much as food-chain superiority. He regularly employs remote-controlled airplanes that replicate either a bird of prey's silhouette or flight pattern, and a laser beam in conjunction with the bird's flight. The prey associates the light beam or the plane with the predator in a Pavlovian skedaddle response so that some repeat flights need only the technology, not the animal. On certain jobs, such as gull abatement at a landfill, pyrotechnics might even be part of the techno tactic.

Generally, Miknuk works the resort circuit while his son and son-in-law take care of the landfill/agricultural business in the greater L.A. area and San Joaquin Valley. If the sight of a falcon chasing prey over a field of lettuce or berries seems natural, the sight of a hawk practicing touch-and-gos on a man's arm raised against a manicured lawn seems like a gimmick. Like something you get for your $25-a-day resort fee.

Then you talk to the guy with the gloved arm and realize he's about as artificial as rain and as entertaining as an astronaut--a guy who loves his work and is gratified that others love watching him do it.

Get this guy a reality TV show.

Photo: Ellen Alperstein

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