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Soaring to the rescue

Vineyards including Eola Hills using birds to protect precious grapes from, well, birds

Ryan Spaniel and Midol, an Aplomado Falcon, take a break in Eola Hills' Legacy Vineyard Saturday morning

Photo by Pete Strong

Ryan Spaniel and Midol, an Aplomado Falcon, take a break in Eola Hills' Legacy Vineyard Saturday morning

October 03, 2012

WEST SALEM -- A small group of starlings land in a stand of trees about 20 yards away from rows of ripening -- and tempting -- pinot noir grapes in a vineyard near West Salem. Slowly, the flock gets bigger. Ten more show up. Then another dozen. Soon, it would start to look like a scene from "The Birds."

To vineyard managers, those gathering flocks really are something out of a horror movie. Birds -- native and migratory -- can destroy grape crops, gobbling up tons over a season.

"When the migrating birds come in, it gets pretty weird. There will be literally tens of thousands of them. They are just like a shadow. They will come down into the vineyard and they'll just peck, peck, peck," said Jim Huggins, Eola Hills Wine Cellars vineyard manager, describing the carnage. "You can lose literally tons in a day. At 2,500 bucks a ton, it doesn't take long.

"When you see an afternoon (of birds eating grapes) just decimate your crop, you have to do something," he said.

Many vineyards employ propane cannons, "squawk boxes" that emit recordings of bird distress calls, and reflective tape. Those methods do keep the birds at bay, but not for long. Eventually, the birds' hunger overrides their fear, and then even people physically chasing the birds doesn't stop them.

With the starlings gathering, and getting braver, on a pleasant morning last week at Eola Hills, it was a good thing Copper was around.

Copper is a small Barbary falcon, about 5 months old. He may be young, but to starlings he's lethal. And they know it.

Spaniel swings a lure stuffed with quail to entice a falcon to return to him over the vineyard. The birds also respond to a whistle blown by the falconer.

Photo by Pete Strong

Spaniel swings a lure stuffed with quail to entice a falcon to return to him over the vineyard. The birds also respond to a whistle blown by the falconer.

As soon as falconer Kort Clayton, the Northwest operations manager at Airstrike Bird Control, releases Copper, the starlings begin to scatter.

Copper and his "coworkers," Bess, a Peregrine falcon; George, a Harris hawk; Midol, an Aplomado falcon; and Koa, a hybrid falcon, are the crew at Airstrike Bird Control.

Falconer Ryan Spaniel, along with Bess, George and Koa, have been patrolling Eola Hills' Legacy Vineyard, along with neighboring vineyards, Canary Hill and Carter, for about two weeks. Clayton and his falcons drop in occasionally to lend a hand -- or wing.

It's a new operation for Eola Hills, Huggins said, which decided to give falconry a shot after other methods provided only marginal success.

"It's really interesting," Huggins said. "It's a completely sustainable way to scare the birds away. They don't eat the birds. They just scare them."

California vineyards have been using falcons and other birds of prey to drive birds away for about a decade. Now, Oregon vineyards have begun to pick up on the practice.

"It's expensive, but in the cost savings because of the extra fruit we realize, it's probably a wash compared to other methods of protection," Huggins said.

This year Eola is really putting Spaniel, Clayton and their birds to the test.

"This vineyard is completely unprotected by conventional methods because they are here," Huggins said.

So far, so good. But the falcons haven't been truly tested yet. The warm weather has provided a reprieve, but as the weather cools and rain begins, the birds will get hungry.

Falconer Ryan Spaniel gives Bess, a Peregrine falcon, a treat of quail after a patrol of Eola Hill

Photo by Pete Strong

Falconer Ryan Spaniel gives Bess, a Peregrine falcon, a treat of quail after a patrol of Eola Hill's Legacy Vineyard Saturday. Bess is one of four falcons Spaniel works with.

Spaniel said when that happens, he and his gang will be ready.

"Generally, when we fly the falcons, it scares the heck out of everything," he said.

The idea is to use the birds' survival instincts against them. Falcons and hawks are predators and seeing them flying in a vineyard is enough to keep pesky flocks away.

Right now, Spaniel is tending to "hot spots," such as the vineyard where Copper made his presence known, and establishing his birds in the vineyards he's protecting.

Spaniel regulates his birds' food intake, so he can use it to motivate and control them. When he releases the birds -- one at a time -- he uses a whistle and a lure stuffed with quail to get them to return. When on patrol, they fly up to a mile away, circling and chasing marauding flocks.

Koa, a hybrid of two types of African falcon, stays on the lookout for starlings and other birds while flying over vineyards under the watchful eye of falconer Ryan Spaniel.

Photo by Pete Strong

Koa, a hybrid of two types of African falcon, stays on the lookout for starlings and other birds while flying over vineyards under the watchful eye of falconer Ryan Spaniel.

When Spaniel swings the lure, it tempts them back. Trying to catch the lure, the falcons fly by him repeatedly, making wide circles low over the rows of vines. That sight frightens the birds that would make a meal of the sweet grapes.

"What it really looks like to them is a predator chasing prey," Clayton said.

Another benefit -- it's nearly silent -- is the vast improvement on propane cannons, a frequent source of frustration to vineyard neighbors. The only noise is the whistle and the occasional flare, which is used to create an association between the falcons and the noise.

Spaniel, who has protected blueberry and cherry farms and waste transfer stations, is working his first vineyard.

It's a long day. Typically, he is in the vineyard at 6:15 a.m. getting his birds ready. Once the sun is up, it's time to fly. He changes location throughout the day to keep the flocks on the move. At some point, they may begin to associate Spaniel and his Jeep with a predator and move on at thesight of him.

"They will definitely flee when a falcon is flown, but it takes repeated exposure to convince them to change patterns and start looking elsewhere," Clayton said. "That's when you get the upper hand."

The battle has just begun, but Clayton and Spaniel are confident their winged warriors will prevail.

"They can get used to scary loud noise," Clayton said. "They always know that a falcon wants to kill them and they never get used to that."