Falcons in the vineyards

While picturesque in nature, in reality, Sonoma’s rolling vineyards can be a battleground as growers fight to keep their fruit flourishing against threats ranging from frost to pests. At Rams Gate Winery, vineyard managers are turning to falcons to combat a particularly persistent pest: the starling.

After losing tons of grapes each year to the penetrating pecks of starlings, Rams Gate contacted Tactical Avian Predators, a Reno-based company that brings a team of falcons to patrol agricultural fields and other businesses that attract avian annoyances in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Proprietor Jim Tigan will be spending the harvest season at the winery just north of Highway 37, where his cast of falcons will scare the starlings away from the vines.

“There’s a coolness factor with this, it’s different. It’s using nature against nature in a sustainable way,” said Ned Hill of La Prenda Vineyards, who manages the 30 acres of pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc and syrah at Rams Gate.

Hill said after losing an entire crop of pinot noir grapes to starlings during the winery’s first harvest season, Rams Gate began spending upwards of $15,000 a year on different techniques to drive the birds away from the fruit.

“We were only being somewhat successful,” he said, explaining that the winery still lost two-to-four tons of grapes each season to the starlings.

Starlings never belonged here – they were shipped to New York in the 19th century as an expanded effort to bring all of the more than 600 species of bird mentioned in William Shakespeare’s writing to America. To that end, hundreds of starlings were released in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, which by 1950 had grown to an estimated population of 200 million that stretched coast to coast. Highly intelligent and adaptable birds, the starlings have proven difficult to combat in the vineyards, as well as other agricultural fields.

Tigan said starlings send out 25 to 30 scouts, often imbedded in a cluster of harmless blackbirds, which then fly into the vineyards to test the grapes undetected. When the birds find the correct level of ripeness, they alert the rest of the flock.

“They wait until the grapes are sweet enough, and then they send out a signal and the starlings come by the thousands. It’s the most amazing thing when you see it,” Tigan said, adding the flock can do significant damage to the grapes.

Covering the vines with a thin, plastic netting is a popular bird abatement technique, but at $500 an acre, it can be costly. Plus, the starlings are smart enough to use it to their advantage, balancing on the black plastic netting while pecking away at the grapes, Hill said.

“One of the problems with starlings is that they’re super smart,” Tigan said, explaining that starlings are one of only a handful of species that can be taught seven behaviors, including talking and coming on command.

That’s where the falcons come in. Fast and focused, the birds fixate on driving the starlings away from the vineyards. The predatory falcons are trained not to kill the starlings, but instead to chase the pest birds away. A falcon can patrol 500 to 800 acres at a time – although Tigan uses three falcons throughout the day ensuring none of the birds are overworked. The falcons are aided by Annabel, a dog trained to chase the starlings off the vines and into the sky, where the bird of prey can chase the pests away.

“We’re actually camping out there in the vineyards,” Tigan said, explaining that the falcons work from sunup to sundown, and will be there regularly through the end of harvest. After just a week, the starlings were already looking for ways to get rid of the falcon.

“They dive into traffic (on Highway 37) when the falcon is chasing them. They’re trying to get the falcon hit by a car,” Tigan said, adding that the starlings’ plan nearly worked. “We’re very concerned about it.”

Tigan is a self-professed “bird brain” who has been entranced with falcons since childhood. He spent two years in the required apprenticeship before passing his falconers test at age 16. Another seven years of working with the birds was required to earn the rank of “master falconer.” He began making a living with his falcons at Travis Air Force Base, where the birds of prey would chase flocks off the airstrip to prevent accidents during takeoff and landing. Somewhat organically, the business grew to include patrolling agriculture fields such as winegrapes, cherries and blueberries, as well as more high profile assignments chasing birds away from the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Resort.

“When I started out, it was essentially illegal – there was no permit you could get. I was probably one of the first five companies to do this work,” Tigan said, adding that only recently has the government recognized falconry as an industry. “There’s now a federal permit you can get as a commercial falconer.”

Hill admits there is a hefty cost to using falcons in the vineyard, and if Rams Gate hadn’t experienced “significant economic loss” at the beaks of the starlings, it likely wouldn’t be worth the expense. But he added there is an intangible “cool factor” about using the birds, that makes it worthwhile because it brings birding and wine enthusiasts out to watch the falcons work.

“The cool factor has to weigh into the economics of it – it is a great marketing tool,” Hill said.

See the falcons at Rams Gate Winery, 28700 Arnold Drive.