WATERLOO - Julia and Honey are riding in a black Toyota Tundra pickup, their eyes scanning the skyline.
It's late morning at the Region of Waterloo landfill on Erb Street in Waterloo, and a biting November wind is whipping up litter and a faint whiff of rotting garbage. But Julia and Honey don't mind the cold, or the steady stream of trucks rumbling by. They're here to work.
The driver, Julia Staines, is a 32-year-old bird control technician. Her partner, Honey, is a four-year-old Harris hawk, a trained bird of prey used at the regional landfill to control bird populations.
About three days a week, the pair patrols the local garbage dump, working eight-hour shifts to chase away the hundreds of gulls and crows attracted by the veritable feast thrown in the trash by Waterloo Region's residents.
Staines works with a whistle, starter pistol, leather falconry glove and a bag full of quail meat. Honey works with her talons, sharp eyes and a natural ability to hunt.
Although Honey can easily catch and kill gulls or crows, she doesn't always have to - just having her around is enough to scare the birds away. Even the sight of her owner's black pickup truck is enough to convince the gulls to leave.
"It's like having a great white shark, and it's feeding and it's hungry, " said Dan Frankian, an ex-military sniper and owner of Hawkeye Bird and Pest Control, the company that employs Staines on contract to the landfill.
The region wants to control the bird population at the landfill for two reasons. Feeding frenzies can block the vision of bulldozer drivers, making them unsafe, and the birds can spread garbage and disease to neighbouring suburbs and retails areas.
Since the landfill started using birds of prey to control the problem about eight years ago, the bird population has dropped off dramatically. In the past, the landfill tried shotguns, noise systems, decoys and kites to scare the gulls and crows away.
But keeping the birds at bay remains a constant battle.
"In the heat of the summer, that's when you have the most. It's right after their breeding season and all the adults show up with their young, " Staines said. "There's five thousand or more. They're thick, they're just everywhere. It's a sea of white."
Julia and Honey are easily the two least popular workers at the landfill, at least from the point of view of the gulls and crows. On some occasions, the birds even will dive-bomb her truck during nesting season.
"They know my truck has got a hawk in it, so they're warning all their friends to be on alert, " she said.
The birds have also grown so accustomed to her pickup they'll typically leave before Honey can get out of her seat.
Staines started working with her hawk, which is native to the Southwest U.S., after a two-year apprenticeship with a licensed falconer. She's one of only a handful of people in Ontario licensed to use a bird of prey in a commercial setting like this.
Since joining Hawkeye, the Kitchener native has wound up handling birds of prey in some unusual situations, including as part of a Stratford theatre production and a photo shoot for rapper Drake.
But she's most at home at the landfill, where Honey goes to work eagerly.
The hawk happily hops in the front seat, and assumes her perch on strips of Astroturf mounted on a modified recycling box to catch her droppings. Staines also fitted a sheet of plastic to protect her dash from her partner's talons.
When it's time to scare off the birds, Honey does her job like a dutiful employee.
She follows Staines' whistled commands sharply, knowing she'll be rewarded with little pieces of quail meat.
"We've developed quite a bond. It almost seems like she can read my mind because we're together all the time, " said Staines, who decided she wanted to be a falconer after meeting Frankian while working at the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society.
"I fell in love with Honey."
When Honey is let free by Staines, the flocks - that only minutes earlier were swarming - vanish, flying high above the landfill and moving to another area.
Seeing that many birds hovering and watching from afar is a bit like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's horror classic, The Birds.
"I know some people are afraid of birds. Sometime I'm looking around and I'm thinking, ‘they would be absolutely terrified right now, ' " she said. "When they see her, they shoot right up, and eventually the big cloud just goes away."
Staines says working with Honey is a dream job. She clearly loves her work and her brown-feathered partner.
"I've always dreamed of working with birds of prey. I never knew there was a job, sitting in a landfill with a hawk, " she said. "It's absolutely fantastic. You get to hang out with this awesome bird all day."