Pac-Man the Falcon fighting the pigeon problem at the Bay Area BART station

The hawk’s mottled brown and white feathers rustled in the breeze as it carefully surveyed its surroundings on the upper level of a Bay Area BART platform. With a sudden jerk, he turned his attention to something floating above him on a distant concrete pillar.

He cocked his head to one side, then turned it nearly 180 degrees to get a better view. He waited for a signal from falconer Ricky Ortiz, but before he could leave his perch from his master’s well-worn leather glove, the flock of pigeons darted out of sight.

They knew not to stay long.

That hasn’t always been the case at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station where, for years, racers have raised concerns about the growing population of pigeons and the mess they leave behind. The transit agency has tried various methods to deter them, layering hundreds of bird spikes on nearly every surface and sticking netting to ledges, pipes and ticket machines. They held up statues of owls and used harassment techniques like noisemakers.

But the birds could not be stopped.

Bird poop rests on a sign at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station platform in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022. The Pac-Man hawk was recruited by BART to deter pigeons from nesting and to use the El Cerrito del Norte station as shelter.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Bird spikes rest on top of a sign on the platform at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California July 6, 2022. The spikes were placed to deter pigeons from using the BART station as shelter.
Bird spikes rest on top of a sign on the platform at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California July 6, 2022. The spikes were placed to deter pigeons from using the BART station as shelter.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Bird spikes rest on top of a sign on the platform at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California July 6, 2022. The spikes were placed to deter pigeons from using the BART station as shelter.
Bird spikes rest on top of a sign on the platform at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California July 6, 2022. The spikes were placed to deter pigeons from using the BART station as shelter.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
A BART train pulls into the platform at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.
A BART train pulls into the platform at the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.
Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE


Plagued by pigeons: The El Cerrito del Norte BART station has long been trying to remedy the nuisance of a persistent population of pigeons. (Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE)

“Their feces were everywhere,” BART spokesperson Chris Filippi told SFGATE at the station last week. “The pigeons were everywhere on the platforms and inside the station.”

Not to mention that pigeons are an invasive, non-native and non-migratory species. If they find a place they like, they stay put. And their droppings aren’t just an eyesore – they can carry bacteria that are dangerous to people.

Now, just when you think you’ve seen it all on BART, a new transit hero is among us: a five-year-old Harris Hawk named Pac-Man with a penchant for scaring off pests. Under contract in late May through Falcon Force, a professional bird reduction service based in La Crescenta, Pac-Man managed to drive off the majority of the station’s pigeons in just over a month.

“Even after day one we noticed a major difference,” Ortiz said. “There were probably half as many pigeons as the day before. And it went down from there.

The Pac-Man falcon returns to his falconer Ricky Ortiz on the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.

The Pac-Man falcon returns to his falconer Ricky Ortiz on the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Pac-Man patrols the station with Ortiz three times a week for eight hours a day. At first, it would dive over the platforms and above the station building to establish its territory. Now he no longer needs to lift a wing to encourage the pigeons to find another place to roost.

“They don’t want anything to do with him,” Ortiz said, smiling at the raptor on his arm. “As soon as they see me walking down the hall, they’re already leaving.”

The station is constantly buzzing with a cacophony of sound, from the rhythmic beeping of passengers labeling their Clipper cards to the shrill hum of trains disembarking and synthesized voices announcing each arrival. Despite everything, Pac-Man is calm and collected. It’s in the highly social and adaptable nature of its subspecies, but it’s also part of the captive-born falcon’s training, which is to safely expose it to as much stimulation as possible. At home, Ortiz said he frequently has movie nights with Pac-Man and his raptor housemates — another Harris hawk named Holly and a peregrine falcon named Rip.

The Pac-Man falcon is held by his falconer Ricky Ortiz at the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California July 6, 2022. Pac-Man was recruited by BART to deter pigeons from nest and use the El Cerrito station del Norte as shelter.
The Pac-Man falcon is held by his falconer Ricky Ortiz at the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California July 6, 2022. Pac-Man was recruited by BART to deter pigeons from nest and use the El Cerrito station del Norte as shelter.Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“One of the things I’ll do is turn the TV on really loud with an action movie, and I’ll have them sit there and watch it with me. We’re big ‘Star Wars’ fans,” Ortiz joked.

He also took Pac-Man on walks outside to help him acclimate to an urban environment. But positive reinforcement is another motivator – the hawk knows that when Ortiz whistles while he’s flying, he’ll get a treat when he returns.

“It’s like clicker training for dogs,” Ortiz explained.

The Pac-Manlands falcon on the padded hand of falconer Ricky Ortiz at the El Cerrito del Norte BART.

The Pac-Manlands falcon on the padded hand of falconer Ricky Ortiz at the El Cerrito del Norte BART.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Ortiz’s job as a falconer takes him to sites all over the Bay Area, including landfills, farms, resorts, and shopping malls. The job at the El Cerrito Del Norte station is his first transit-related gig, and he said it was a nice diversion from his typically solitary job. Pac-Man gets a lot of attention from BART regulars, who shout his name, take pictures, and ask to pet him when they see him.

“We get that more from adults than kids,” Filippi said with a laugh. “He’s like a celebrity here now.”

And because the trial partnership with Falcon Force has been so successful, you might see Pac-Man make an appearance at another BART station near you.

The Pac-Man falcon returns to his falconer Ricky Ortiz on the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.

The Pac-Man falcon returns to his falconer Ricky Ortiz on the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

During his shift, you’ll find Pac-Man munching on quail, rabbits, ducks, doves, rats, and mice. And while his work is generally non-violent, Ortiz admitted the hawk was off for a pigeon or two. “I try to prevent that, mainly for the good of the public. Nobody wants to see that. But he’s a predator and he has a mind of his own, so…”


Ortiz was interrupted by an unmistakable plop: Pac-Man defecating on the floor of the BART station. Unfazed, Ortiz wiped it off with his shoe.

“Like I said,” he said, “it’s a wild animal.”

The Pac-Man falcon is held by his falconer Ricky Ortiz on the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.

The Pac-Man falcon is held by his falconer Ricky Ortiz on the platform of the El Cerrito del Norte BART station in El Cerrito, California on July 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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