Organic Consumers Association

Falcons in California Vineyards Protect the Grapes

From AG News You Can Use #13
By Amigo Cantisano

A Bird of Prey Keeps Vineyard Snackers Away
By Lynn Alley

It's that time of year that winegrowers dread: As their grapes approach peak
ripeness, birds show up in droves in their vineyards for a feast.

Recently, some California vineyard managers have been trying a new method to
keep hungry birds away, or rather a centuries-old one -- falconry. In wine
regions from Napa Valley to the Central Coast, a cottage industry of
falconers has arisen; many already use trained birds of prey to scare birds
away from airports, military installations and other crops.

"We've tried every method imaginable, and by far, this is the most
cost-effective for us," said Hank Ashby, vineyard manager for French Camp
Vineyard Management, based in the Central Coast. The company, which sells
grapes to several large California wineries, began using the services of
master falconer Tom Savory five years ago.

In large vineyards, birds can cause crop losses of up to 10 percent,
millions of dollars worth of grapes, said Ashby; for smaller vineyards, the
percentage can be even higher. Most growers try a variety of tactics to try
to keep birds away, such as strips of shiny Mylar tied to vines, loud
propane cannons going off at intervals in the vineyard, workers with
shotguns patrolling on all-terrain vehicles and large swaths of plastic
netting placed over the vines.

"We like [falconry] because it's good for the environment, there's no noise
pollution, no danger to personnel that you have with shotguns, and it is not
nearly as expensive as netting," said Ashby. The company owners are looking
at expanding the falcon patrol to their famed Bien Nacido vineyard in Santa
Maria Valley next year.

The objective is to scare off starlings and other birds, not to kill them,
said Savory, owner of Avian Abatement Technology, based in Alturas, Calif.
"The very presence of the falcon in the vineyard is often enough to run off
thousands of birds."

One falcon can cover about 500 acres, and Savory has about four falcons that
he uses throughout the day. "We're about 2,000 acres, so we just keep one
working all the time here from veraison [when the grapes first begin to
color] through harvest, about five to six weeks," Ashby said.

Dan Connors, who manages Robert Mondavi's Cuesta Ridge vineyards in the
Central Coast, began using Savory's services this year. "He comes out in the
morning and surveys the vineyard, then goes up to a high spot and puts a
falcon up in the air," Connors said. The falcon climbs to about 1,500 feet.
They have incredible eyesight. The falcon then dives. As soon as the birds
see the falcon, they're out of there."

Although Savory has the largest number of vineyard clients so far, two other
master falconers are making inroads into the market.

Tom Stephan of Ramona, Calif., started Air Superiority Falconry Services in
1995, providing bird control for both the military and agriculture, though
he first used falcons in a southern California vineyard in 1981. This year,
he was hired by Michael Wolf Vineyard Services to work Cakebread Cellars'
new Carneros vineyard.

"This is a much more quiet, nonintrusive way to control birds in the
vineyards when you've got neighbors," said Bruce Cakebread, noting that the
method was effective not only for his own vineyards, but for surrounding
vineyards as well. "The larger the vineyard, the more cost-effective the use
of falcons is," he added. Falconers typically charge $50 to $60 an hour. "We
want to put together a group of growers in Carneros so we can fly all the

Brad Felger, owner of Airstrike Technology in the Central Coast, is a master
falconer and breeder with 33 years of experience. He signed on with his
first vineyard client this year. But as the demand for falconers in
vineyards grows, Felger said, he sees a need to establish "a standard of
performance for the industry." Otherwise, if a vineyard owner finds a
falconer that doesn't get results, he spreads the word that the technique
doesn't work.

State and federal regulations require a falconer to undergo a two-year
apprenticeship under a master falconer to become licensed. It takes seven
years to become a master falconer, but that doesn't mean the person has had
experience in bird abatement.

Savory, who used only one employee this year, said, "Qualified people are
very, very hard to come by. This has to come from the heart before it comes
from the wallet."

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