By Tim Tesconi
Falcons and dogs are being used as vineyard guardians to keep pesky starlings and other birds from devouring valuable wine grapes during harvest.
Two workshops held at Sonoma County Farm Bureau in recent months introduced growers to the idea of using falcons and small dogs as alternatives to netting, noisemakers, flags or poison to deal with the avian pests that descend in droves in many Sonoma County vineyards when grapes approach peak ripeness. The problem with noisemakers and mylar strips is they are effective for a short time and then birds become habituated to these devices and ignore them. Netting is effective but costly and time-consuming to put on and take off the vines. Poison bates for the invading birds are problematic because of their residual impacts on the food chain.
Increasingly, growers, particularly, in western Sonoma County, are using falcons to keep hungry birds out of the vineyards. And at least one Sonoma County vineyard owner is using her small, hard-working terriers to patrol the vineyards to scare off the birds, annually saving $3,000 in netting costs at the Santa Rosa vineyard.
“For the last seven seasons, we have successfully used dogs to keep starlings and cedar wax wings from eating the grapes in our vineyards,” said Anna Hansen, who with her husband Fred operates a 62-acre vineyard at the corner of Guerneville and Willowside Roads. The vineyard is in area where bird pressure is high.
Hansen said once grapes start to turn color and ripen, she runs the dogs, all English Hunt Terriers, through the vineyards 30 minutes each morning and evening. The dogs leave their scent in the vineyards. Because the vine rows obscure the birds’ view, they don’t know if the dogs are in the vineyard or not. It works.
“The birds can smell the dogs but can’t see them so they assume they are there and stay away,” said Hansen.
For a number of years now, said Craig Marston, owner of The Falcon Co., based in Petaluma, falcons have been used in vineyards as well as fruit orchards and berry farms on the West Coast to keep birds from eating crops. Falcons also are being used at landfills, airports and military bases to keep the decks cleared of seagulls and other birds that cause trouble.
Marston said with their keen eyesight, speed and good hunting skills, falcons have become a preferred method of aviation management for some wine grape growers including Sonoma County Farm Bureau member William Petersen of Sebastopol. Falcons were used this year in Petersen’s vineyard to great success.
“The vineyard did not lose a grape to starlings,” said Marston.
The Gallo family also uses falcons to fend off birds at their Stony Point Vineyard near the Washoe House between Cotati and Petaluma. The falcons save vineyard manager Trini Amador from the tremendous cost of netting the hillside vineyards.
Marston said using falcons is a green solution because the trained the birds of prey don’t kill the birds invading the vineyards. The mere presence of the flying falcons sends the invading scavengers to other vineyards not protected by netting or falcons.
“The falcons just have to fly in the air above the vineyards and the starlings and other birds go somewhere else,” said Marston, who is state and federally licensed for bird abatement.
Hansen, the vineyard owner using dogs, said even her husband was skeptical of what the dogs were doing but after three seasons he became a believer when the bird damage was greatly minimized without the use of netting.
Hansen said the dogs are a breed from England where they are used on farms to hunt vermin. She said there is an American breed, called the Teddy Roosevelt Terrier that offers promise for bird management in vineyards. She is looking into acquiring a Roosevelt Terrier to test their skills. She said the dogs must be trained that the vineyard is their territory and it is their job to keep out the flying pests.
“It’s a lot of fun having these dogs and watching them work their vineyard,” said Hansen. “And the dogs are great alternative to netting and the poisons bates that can leave toxic residues in our food chain.”