LA falconry marries business and mouse heads


Adam Baz and Kanoni, an augur buzzard, get ready to shoot photos at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

At the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Cat Ovalle is directing a video shoot for a company that sells streetwear and cannabis vapes. They’re getting some good shots – until one of the models decides to perch high up on a wall and won’t come down until he gets something to eat.

The model is Jasper, and his handler, Adam Baz, offers him a snack: some mouse bits, a little bit of chopped-up quail.

Jasper is a 6-year-old Harris’s hawk, who’s good with people and absolutely down for photo shoots, rabbit hunting, educational lessons, raven-chasing, or whatever … just as long as you feed him.

“Nothing really bothers him. He's been highly socialized and seen it all,” says Baz. “So he's completely comfortable flying in the middle of Downtown LA, but it took me a while to get in there.” 

Cat Ovalle gets up close and personal with Kanoni. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds.

Baz is a falconer. His company, Hawk on Hand, provides avian apex predators for photo shoots, music videos (Molly Lewis and NAS), educational sessions, and (the big money-maker) bird abatement: chasing loud pooping crows and seagulls from landfills, businesses, and public spaces.

“There aren't many falconers in LA. It's not a very hospitable place to do falconry,” Baz says.

So what motivates an urban falconer to spend his time managing these birds — not to mention completing the training and paperwork required to do it legally?

Well, it’s complicated.

But for the birds of prey, it’s more straightforward. Treats. They’re in it for the treats.

Jasper the Harris’s hawk is ready for his close-up. Photo by Brandon R. Reynolds

Baz starts a day of falconry by cutting up small frozen animals into bite-sized bits. These mouse heads and whatnot are the currency he uses to pay his birds, who are not quite employees and not quote pets, but something else.

“This is just the deep freezer of death here,” Baz says as he opens a freezer and peers inside. “So you know, a grab bag of squirrels and rats and mice, rabbit, quail.”

This small-animal chopshop is up a treacherously steep, overgrown road inside a tasteful house in Lincoln Heights that looks like where a killer might live. Which, in fact, several do.

Besides Baz and his girlfriend, their two goats, and a very sweet but understandably nervous dog, there are the four birds. None of which are falcons, by the way: a young barn owl named Archie; two Harris’s hawks, Jasper and Fox; and … well, then there’s Kanoni. She’s a large East African hawk called an augur buzzard, mostly dark gray on her head and back, and white all down the front, regal and intimidating.

Kanoni imprinted on Baz when she was young, which means they have a special kind of bond.

“She sees me as somewhere in between her parent and her mate,” he says, adding, “she's not a huge fan of my girlfriend.”

After watching Baz care for and fly his awe-inspiring birds, you might infer there’s something emotional or spiritual going on between him and them. But Baz says no. 

“They trust me and they're comfortable with me and they're happy with me, don't get me wrong, but they don't love me,” he says. “They're flying to me because they're hungry, and I have food and they can rely on me for that.”

“Humans have a unique tendency to project our own feelings and emotions onto our animals,” he muses. Instead, Baz explains, he maintains his relationship with his birds using a digital scale. He weighs the birds before every flight – if they’re too full, they just won’t work for him. 

He’s figured out how to control their wildness, down to the gram.

Before Baz, 39, took up falconry seven years ago, he was a bird biologist in Portland who realized, among other things, that the birds didn’t really care about him.

“That struck me as a little odd, that I was devoting years and years of my life to studying these animals that wanted nothing to do with me,” he says. “And so I was craving having some more mutually beneficial, interactive relationship with these birds that I was studying.” 

He began an apprenticeship with a falconer in Portland. Businesses hired them to use their birds to chase crows, ravens, and pigeons out of public areas. A few years ago, he started working in LA, and then last year he left Portland altogether because, you know, rain.

To legally own falcons or hawks in California, you need a whole series of state and federal hunting licenses, plus other licenses if you want to do bird abatement, plus inspections of your bird facilities, and there’s a test where you have to know the medieval names for all the falconry gear. Still, there are 550 registered falconers in California, which is about one-tenth of all the falconers in the United States. 

Mostly people use the birds for hunting, but Baz is one of the more visible falconers, what with the photo shoots and various appearances — he even showed Jennifer Hudson how it works. He does regular meet-and-greets with the birds in Eugene Debs Park, where interested non-falconers can fly the birds, learn about their history and behavior, and, of course, feed them mouse heads. 

Beetah Mouzoon catches a handful of Archie the barn owl at Debs Park. Photo by Adam Baz.

The biggest part of his business is bird abatement, as he demonstrated one evening in a park around Palmdale’s City Hall.

Dozens of ravens were settling in for the night as Baz turned Jasper loose. The ravens took flight with the commotion of a party being broken up. Jasper doesn’t (usually) kill the ravens, crows, or pigeons he’s deployed to scatter, but he could, and those birds get the message.

“At a certain point, and we don't really know how or why this happens, but one of them will give a cue and they'll just retreat,” Baz explains. “Then it'll be just quiet for the rest of the night. Usually.”

After a few minutes, like magic, the park is cleared. But since they’ll eventually come back, Baz — or one of the falconers who works with him — has to visit these sites periodically and fly his birds around. 

“One of the cool things about ravens and crows is that they actually pass information between generations. And so these birds will remember this process for a long time,” he says. “Eventually we hope that every month and every year, we'll see less and less of them.” 

The relationship between predator and prey is as much a part of LA’s nature as the ancient ritual of fashion shoots and high-maintenance beauties with weird diets. That’s what drives all the hustling in this city. Maybe it’s not love, but it’s definitely hunger.