Fal­con­ers hired to dis­cour­age other birds from eat­ing crops

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - LIFE - By Dean Fos­dick

Frus­trated grow­ers tired of see­ing wild birds dev­as­tate their fruit crops are turn­ing to rap­tors to pa­trol their fields, or­chards and vine­yards.

This an­cient preda­tor­prey re­la­tion­ship is cre­at­ing work for scores of fal­con­ers, who fol­low the sea­sonal cherry, blue­berry and grape har­vests from Cal­i­for­nia to Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton state and be­yond.

“We’ve seen blue­berry farms with sig­nif­i­cant dam­age — 40 per­cent or more of their crop,” said Brad Fel­ger, a mas­ter fal­coner and owner of Airstrike Bird Con­trol Inc., in Mount Ver­non, Wash­ing­ton. “That pretty much jus­ti­fies the cost of us­ing us.”

Fal­con­ers train their birds to in­tim­i­date rather than de­stroy, since state or fed­eral laws pro­tect all but a few bird species. It is il­le­gal to kill pest birds with­out a per­mit.

“Bird abate­ment us­ing rap­tors is not about killing, it’s about chas­ing,” Fel­ger said. “We’re care­ful about keep­ing the qual­ity of abate­ment high.”

Per­mits are also re­quired to re­move birds of prey from the wild or im­port them from other na­tions. Only cap­tive-bred rap­tors can be used for agri­cul­tural work.

“No one un­der any cir­cum­stances may keep a rap­tor as a ‘pet’,” the Wash­ing­ton Depart­ment of Wildlife says. “Only li­censed fal­con­ers may have birds of prey, and these birds must be flown freely (al­lowed to leave if they choose) and hunted reg­u­larly.”

Fruit grow­ing is more prof­itable and pro­tected from bio­haz­ards when the fruit is free of cuts, gashes and an­i­mal wastes, Fel­ger said.

“Hand pick­ers work­ing in a dam­aged field must do a lot of time-con­sum­ing sort­ing,” he said. “It takes more la­bor to har­vest that kind of crop than it does one with­out bird dam­age.”

The fal­cons and hawks are trained to swoop down and scare bird pests away from fruit trees, vine­yards and shrubs or sim­ply soar and cir­cle above.

“Birds nat­u­rally fear rap­tors, and pretty soon the tar­geted birds fig­ure out they’re not safe and find some­place else to go,” Fel­ger says.

Euro­pean star­lings are

Pub­lic En­emy No. 1 for most fruit grow­ers since they de­scend in large flocks to feast. Seag­ulls, black­birds, crows, cedar waxwings, finches, crows and robins also con­trib­ute to crop dam­age.

Fal­con­ers’ fees vary. “Cer­tain fields are harder to work with rap­tors than oth­ers,” Fel­ger said. “Cost ef­fec­tive­ness gen­er­ally de­pends upon size and to­pog­ra­phy. For projects larger than 1,000 acres, you’ll prob­a­bly have to add a sec­ond fal­con.”

Britt Fletcher, owner of a 17-acre or­ganic blue­berry farm near Free­land, Wash­ing­ton, mixes fal­conry with other de­ter­rents to make hir­ing fal­con­ers more af­ford­able.

“It’s hard hav­ing a fal­con out there un­less you have enough vol­ume,” Fletcher said.

He also uses noise­mak­ers, drones and sky pup­pets — those large bal­loon-like crea­tures of­ten seen float­ing above car lots.

“They’re (sky pup­pets) not pre­dictable in the way they move and that’s help­ful,” Fletcher said. “I have a half-dozen.”

DEAN FOS­DICK VIA AP

This photo shows a pileated wood­pecker eat­ing ap­ples from a tree in an or­chard near Langley, Wash. on June 29. Pest birds like Euro­pean star­lings, black­birds, cedar waxwings and finches can dev­as­tate fruit crops.

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