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Lasers battle birds in Sonoma County vineyard

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Scarecrows, raptors and robotic facsimiles, propane cannons, reflective flags, netting — farmers have been trying all kinds of methods over the centuries to keep birds from turning their hard work into a feast just as the crop is ready for market. One North Coast grower decided to bring in the lasers.

No, they weren’t for zapping the avian intruders in sci-fi fashion. Joan and Jim Griffin leased four Agrilaser Autonomic systems from Holland-based Bird Control Group to patrol their 21-acre Petaluma Gap appellation vineyard with beams of lime green light. The idea is that the randomly roving tennis ball-sized laser spotlights would be more effective in keeping out the birds than the over-the-row netting they had employed at Griffin’s Lair Vineyards, which grows mostly pinot noir grapes and 5 acres of syrah.

“The birds come in waves,” said Jim Griffin. “The laser does not stop them from coming into the vineyard, but when the dot comes along, it scares them, and they fly away. Often, we’ll have 20 birds descend on the area, then they’ll go a few hundred yards away, until the beam comes across them, and they move again.”

The Griffins have been battling the birds for going on two decades. They bought the ranch, located 10 miles south of Petaluma, in 1995 for cattle grazing. When they decided to try grape growing, Joan Griffin studied viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. The vineyard was planted in 1999–2000, she manages the vineyard, using Napa-based Atlas Vineyard Management as a labor contractor.

Buyers of the grapes include Adobe Road Winery, Delgado Wines, Lombardi Wines, Loxton Cellars, Ram’s Gate and Wind Gap Wines. Vineyard-designated syrahs are made by Bedrock Wines, Loxton, Pax Mahle Wines, and Spottswoode. Pax Mahle has made a Griffin’s Lair vineyard designate since 2002.

But the noted vineyard has prime roosting real estate nearby, a row of eucalyptus trees. In late summer, thousands of finches sortie in from the stand to gorge on the ripening grapes. Premium vineyards routinely thin the grape crop to ensure that the plants concentrate their nutrients on the best fruit. But Jim Griffin said the birds were taking up to 20 percent more.

“That’s when we went to netting,” he said.

Bird damage to winegrapes is estimated to be $49.1 million dollars annually for California, followed by $12.9 million in Washington, $3.45 million in New York and $2.68 million in Oregon. Top culprits are European starlings, American robins and wild turkeys.

Griffin’s Lair employed nets for a decade. First, the Griffins brought in slack netting then went to more-expensive 14-foot-long horizontal nets that often are deployed and removed by machine and a crew of four. It took three to four days to set the out the nets on the small vineyard.

The nets themselves would last for several years, but holes would develop as shoots would grow through and have to be cut out, Griffin said. At harvest, picking crews would have to lift the nets out of the way to get to the fruit, and passing tractors often would snag the nets, causing more holes.

And the birds in following seasons would find those holes, he said. The cost of buying and working with the nets was as much as $25,000 a year. Four Agrilaser Autonomic 500 lasers were installed in May 2017.

In contrast, the lasers cost $10,000 each to buy, but the company prefers to lease them to keep the ardware and software updated, according to Craig Crossley, who runs Bird Control’s U.S. business from Portland, Oregon.

Griffin’s Lair is the company’s first vineyard installation on the West Coast, but the 6-year-old parent company has more than 6,000 handheld and automated lasers in operation globally, including a number in Chile, Crossley said. There’s a demonstration going with East Coast vineyards, including 20 acres of the 80-acre West Port River Vineyard, for the 2018 season. Lasers are used for other soft fruit, such as blueberries on a farm in Oregon.

The Griffin’s deployed three mobile lasers, powered by solar panels, and one plugged into power at the irrigation pump house. Looking like remotely operated security cameras, the Class 3B lasers are mounted on poles 15 to 18 feet high. Depending on the terrain, each laser can reach out 400 to 500 yards and cover 10 to 20 acres of crops around dawn and dusk, Crossley said.

“In the fog, it creates quite the light show,” Griffin said.

To best figure out where the lasers are most-needed, the company has the site manager fill out an 11-point questionnaire, and a field technician uses the Google Maps-powered proprietary software to program the laser operating area and hours of operation, generally the hours around dawn and dusk.

The programming and the unit’s Projection Safety System keep the laser from shining onto roads or into surrounding structures and from going above the horizon to interfere with pilot vision. Outside of croplands, the company has installed its lasers on commercial buildings and in confined areas such as rafters.

Short for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation,” lasers create highly focused beams of light in various colors, even to the invisible ends of the spectrum, based on the medium that’s used.

Federal government safety protocols call for special eye filters in areas where Class 3B lasers are operating, according to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Griffin just doesn’t have workers in the vineyard when the lasers are roving.

But how safe are these lasers around birds? The Audubon Society’s Montana group last fall was part of multimethod effort launched to keep tens of thousands of migrating birds from landing in and drinking from a 400-acre pool of toxic water at the Berkeley Pit former copper mine near Butte. In addition to raptor-shaped drones and air cannons, green lasers were deployed to keep the feathered travelers from their own demise.

Audubon noted that green lasers have been used to deter even brainy ravens from crops, airports and landfills.

Lasers used for shooing away birds are green, because that’s the laser color they see best, Crossley said. The high visibility, speed of motion and random direction of the projected laser disc help keep birds away better than methods animals get used to, such as the iconic view of crows perched on a scarecrow.

“We have yet to see birds get used to lasers,” Crossley said. “But there are animals that can evade all kinds of distractions. For example, if birds have nests, they will not move from the nests.”

That’s why the company recommends that for the lasers to work best they should be installed one to two months before nesting season.