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Tribune, The (San Luis Obispo, CA)
May 24, 2002
Section: Business
Edition: Tribune
Page: D1
Column:Wine Notes

FALCONS OFFER ALTERNATIVE TO PROTECT CROPS
Raven J. Railey

One of the newest methods of dealing with pesky birds in the vineyards is also one of the oldest.

Falcons, once the favorite of European kings, are being put to work chasing off their smaller cousins that are intent on making a quick supper of ripening grapes.
On Monday, falconer Tom Savory gave a demonstration of the technique to about 25 vineyard owners from San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties at a Central Coast Vineyard Team meeting at Red Hills Vineyard in Creston.

Unfortunately, rain prohibited Savory from giving a full demonstration. But when the weather broke, the group was able to watch the predator swoop overhead for about 15 minutes, said local wine writer Katy Budge.

"It was amazing," she said. "To see something fly that fast and be that agile -- they're like athletes."

But it isn't the bird's grace that leads growers to shell out $50 or more an hour to have falconers work their vineyards before and during harvest.

It's their effectiveness in ridding the fields of grape-eating starlings that can easily pick the vines clean before the berries have a chance to fully ripen.

"You might not even realize how many starlings you have until you bring the falcon in," said Hank Ashby, who manages French Camp Vineyards in Shandon. "They can pick the entire crop. I've seen it happen. I'm talking every berry where it looks like it's been picked with a machine."

French Camp has used Savory for about three years to protect its 1,750 acres of vines. Before that, Ashby tried just about everything available to run off the starlings, but nothing worked as well, he said.

Propane cannons that emit periodic booms are too noisy and lose effectiveness once the birds get used to them, Ashby said.

Helium balloons with intimidating images of eyeballs or hawks aren't scary enough and tend to deflate. He also tried Mylar tape that glitters in the sunlight -- "that works about four days," he said.

Sending workers out with shotguns tends to scatter the pests but also generates noise pollution and is "an accident waiting to happen," Ashby said. Besides, the cost of the laborers and shells can be prohibitive for a large ranch.

"One falcon I figure replaces about 15 shotguns," he added.

Netting, another common and effective option, costs about $300 an acre, plus the labor expense of removing them before harvesting. That's a good choice for small vineyards but impractical for French Camp, Ashby said.

He wouldn't recommend falcons for an operation of less than 200 acres but was so sold on the method, he encouraged Savory to cultivate other clients in the area.

Savory lives in Fort Jones, a town near the Oregon border, but rents a house in the North County with his three partners from Aug. 1 to about Oct. 1. A 36-year falconer, he turned the interest into a "retirement career" about four years ago.

He has contracts with about 10 vineyards in the Paso Robles area this year.

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Copyright (c) 2002 The Tribune




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