Falconers hired to discourage other birds from eating crops

This June 29, 2016 photo shows a male Saker falcon on a tether in truck parked in a driveway near Langley, Wash. Raptors used for bird abatement are trained to chase, not kill. This Saker falcon, an eastern European variety, is one of several raptor species trained by falconers to chase away birds that can damage fruit crops. Some growers have reported losing more than 40 percent of their harvest to bird pests. (Dean Fosdick via AP)

This June 29, 2016 photo shows a male Saker falcon on a tether in truck parked in a driveway near Langley, Wash. Raptors used for bird abatement are trained to chase, not kill. This Saker falcon, an eastern European variety, is one of several raptor species trained by falconers to chase away birds that can damage fruit crops. Some growers have reported losing more than 40 percent of their harvest to bird pests. (Dean Fosdick via AP)

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

This ancient predator-prey 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.”

More in Life

File
Minister’s Message: What unites? Being one in Christ

It seems everywhere you look and on every level people are gridlocked

The secret to this homemade vegetarian lasagna is the addition of fresh noodles from scratch. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: The secret’s in the noodles

Handmade pasta adds layers of flavor to vegetable lasagna

Virginia Walters (Courtesy photo)
Life in the Pedestrian Lane: Downtime

Now here we are, two-thirds of the way through the longest month of the year

Robert “Bob” Huttle, posing here next to Cliff House, spent the night in this cabin in April 1934 and mused about a possible murder there. (Photo courtesy of the Huttle Collection)
Twists and turns in the history of Cliff House — Part 2

How much of the doctor’s actions Bob Huttle knew when he stayed in Cliff House 10 years later is difficult to know.

Achieving the crispy, flaky layers of golden goodness of a croissant require precision and skill. (Photo by Tresa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: Reaching the pinnacle of patisserie

Croissants take precision and skill, but the results can be delightful

This 1940s-era image is one of few early photographs of Cliff House, which once stood near the head of Tustumena Lake. (Photo courtesy of the Secora Collection)
Twists and turns in the history of Cliff House — Part 1

Here, then, is the story of Cliff House, as least as I know it now.

File
Minister’s Message: What’s in a name?

The Scriptures advise, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”

Visitors put on personal protective equipment before an artist talk by Dr. Sami Ali' at the Jan. 7, 2022, First Friday opening of her exhibit, "The Mind of a Healthcare Worker During the COVID-19 Pandemic," at the Homer Council on the Arts in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)
ER doctor’s paintings follow passage of pandemic

Dr. Sami Ali made 2019 resolution to paint every day — and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Almond flour adds a nuttiness to this carrot cake topped with cream cheese frosting. (Photo by Tressa Dale/Peninsula Clarion)
On the strawberry patch: A ‘perfect day’ cake

Carrot cake and cream cheese frosting make for a truly delicious day off

File
Minister’s Message: A prayer pulled from the ashes

“In that beleaguered and beautiful land, the prayer endures.”

A copy of “The Year of Magical Thinking” by author Joan Didion is displayed on an e-reader. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Off the Shelf: Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” is a timely study on grief

‘The last week of 2021 felt like a good time to pick up one of her books.’