Grower-shippers turn to falcons to deter bird damage

07/09/2009 05:14:27 PM
Don Schrack

It was an annual battle for blueberry grower-shipper Jim Fitt, owner of Blue Mountain Farms LLC, Burbank, Wash. Small birds — cedar waxwings, starlings, sparrows and others — would feast on his crops.
 
“We had a real serious bird problem,” Lott said. “We tried a variety of mechanical abatement tools (noise makers). They worked for a day or two, and then the birds acclimated to the sounds.”

There were no chemicals that could keep the birds out of the fields. Shotguns would not work, either, he said, because some of the bird shot could end up in the berries.

A nontraditional integrated pest management program proved to be the answer.

Enter Jim Nelson, a school teacher and falconer for 40 years. He was one of two West Coast breeders of the Peruvian aplomado falcons, which are rare for North America, Lott said. In short order, the two men formed a partnership, moved the breeding facilities to Blue Mountain Farms and eventually founded American Bird Abatement Service. 

“The average falconer can’t get the aplomados, because they are so rare,” Lott said. “I figured if I could go in partners on the breeding project, it would secure the falcon supply for my fields.”

Although aplomados are common in parts of South America, it is the only falcon species on the endangered species list in the U.S., he said. A small number of the falcons have migrated to southern Texas.

The aplomados tend to stake out their own territories in the fruit crops and their presence keeps smaller pest birds out of the fields.

“They don’t often attack the smaller birds,” Lott said. “But when the birds see the falcons chasing other birds, after a day or two they just go somewhere else to feed.”

Word of the effectiveness of the Peruvian falcons spread so much so that American Bird Abatement Service now has a growing grower-shipper customer base.

“This year, we have seven falconers flying on contract up and down the West Coast,” Lott said. “Every one of our customers is very happy.”

American Bird Abatement Service has 30 falcons working this year with another 12 pairs in the company’s breeding barn, he said.
 
“A half dozen birds won’t guarantee a lifelong bird abatement program,” Lott said.

The falcons protect a variety of berry and tree fruit commodities, Lott said. The service is not cheap.

“It’s $600 a day for the falconer and up to four falcons,” Lott said. “The bigger the company, the better it works, because it’s expensive and bigger firms can justify the cost.”

Founding the service was not a quick startup project. Obtaining a breeder’s license takes a couple of years, Lott said, and there are annual abatement permits for each state. The falconers must be licensed, too, he said, which comes after an in-house training period.

“Training of each falcon takes about three months,” Lott said. “Once trained, they must be worked regularly. You can’t just put them in a barn until you need them to work.”

What about the occasional bird that chooses not to return to the falconer?

“We haven’t had that problem,” Lott said, “but we lost one bird to illness and another was struck by a car.”

For more information on the program, go to www. americanbirdabatement.com.

Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., uses kestrel falcons in some of its fields, said Roger Pepperl, marketing director. This year, the company is sponsoring a Future Farmers of America project to build more houses for falcons and hawks on its farms.

The company is donating scrap lumber from broken bins to the group, which is builds the kestrel houses for Stemilt to buy back as a fundraiser. The hope is that more growers can use these birds as a more wildlife-friendly way of solving the damage done by small birds on fruit crops.

“In cherries, you have huge losses to bird pecks, so people put out these Mylar ribbons, use cannons and even bird traps, which are kind of inhumane,” Pepperl said.

Pepperl said one of Stemilt’s growers with 100 acres used 17 nesting pairs and completely rid himself of his bird problem.

Note: Staff writer Ashley Bentley contributed to this article.



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