To keep pesky birds away from his blueberries, veteran farmer Mark Flamm has blared recordings of avian distress calls, shot noisy “bird bangers” from a pistol and ordered an employee to shake a gravel-filled bottle at the sky.
He even went old-school and planted a scarecrow.
“That didn’t work,” said Flamm, 58, who once lost a fifth of his berries to his feathered foe despite the efforts, “though I got a picture of a bird sitting on the scarecrow.”
That’s when he called in the falcons.
Starting three years ago, the central Washington state grower hired Vahe Alaverdian of Falcon Force, a master falconer based in La Crescenta, to drive out the flocks of sparrows and starlings that were fattened off Flamm’s fields.
Using a hunting technique that some think dates back to the Bronze Age, Alaverdian prompted his raptors to launch into a series of high-speed dives, called “stooping,” meant to mimic the capture of winged prey. The maneuvers — not unlike an aeronautical war dance — trigger an innate panic attack in the fruit-munching birds, who are either paralyzed with fear or flee for new surroundings.
The falcons are trained to scare, not snack on, their targets.
“It’s amazing. Suddenly all the other birds go quiet because they know they could be eaten,” said Flamm, who has seen his crop loss from birds dwindle to around 3%.
In the age-old face-off between farmer and bird, falconry has presented a relatively new way to tip the scales in man’s favor.
It’s an ancient twist to modern farming, which has embraced technology to resist disease, conserve water and conjure a smorgasbord of expensive hybrid fruit. Yet when it comes to marauding birds, growers have few solutions short of ringing the skies with shotgun blasts.
“There’s not much we can do,” said Joe MacIlvaine, president of Paramount Farming Co. in Bakersfield, the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios. “You can’t shoot them, and you can’t poison them, which aren’t great ideas anyway.”
One Ventura County strawberry farmer’s imperfect answer is riding his bicycle on his farm and sounding its bell. Others use timed propane cannons and firecrackers that can make a tranquil country morning sound like the Battle of Waterloo.
“I give one of my workers a pan and a hammer, and he just pounds away to scare the birds,” said John Tenerelli, a stone-fruit farmer in Littlerock, near Palmdale.
Alex Weiser, a specialty fruit and vegetable grower in Kern and San Bernardino counties, has an employee drive up and down his fields shooing away the birds like a come-to-life scarecrow.
Recently, he tried specially manufactured inflatable yellow balloons with reflective silver patches he calls the “evil eye.” Hung on the end of a branch, the orbs are meant to spook the burglars in midflight.
Despite all that, some of his best results come from firing a flare gun in the general direction of the airborne offenders.
“Not too popular with the neighbors,” Weiser said.
Bird damage is often overshadowed by weather and water as a farmer’s chief concerns. But avian pests are a formidable challenge, raising the risk of contamination and costing growers hundreds of millions a year in damaged crop.
Recent research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that birds peck $49 million away from California’s wine-grape industry each harvest, $12.3 million from the state’s sweet-cherry growers and $2.6 million from blueberry farms.
In Washington, bird damage cost growers of Honeycrisp apples $26.7 million, blueberries $4.6 million and sweet cherries $31.9 million. Birds, like humans, prefer sugary fruit; it’s one reason tart cherries in Washington suffered only $1.8 million in losses.
“Birds are a serious problem because they tend to like the crops that are expensive,” said Stephanie Shwiff, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo.
With a modest investment in bird abatement, farmers can protect more of their profits, Shwiff said.
The problem is choosing the right method. Putting a net over the entire bush makes sense for small farms. But at around $400 an acre, it could set a larger grower back $400,000.
Flash tape, whose shiny surface wards off the birds, speckles most of California’s wine vineyards, but even that loses its luster once birds realize it poses no threat.
“Anything that doesn’t change day to day, the birds will get used to it,” said Alaverdian, the falconer.
A killing machine like a peregrine falcon, on the other hand, will grab the attention of your run-of-the-mill finch or crow.
Alaverdian demonstrated how on a recent summer morning at a 1,000-acre commercial vineyard in Los Alamos, about a 45-minute drive northwest from Santa Barbara.
Patrolling the hilly property in his dusty white SUV, Alaverdian spotted about two dozen magpies roosting on a nearby cluster of oak trees. Although posing no danger to the grapes below, the black-and-white birds’ presence risked attracting the most prolific plunderers — starlings.
Alaverdian released Genghis, one of four falcons perched patiently in the back of his car strapped with radio transmitters just in case they fly out of sight. The 4-year-old peregrine circled over the chardonnay and pinot grigio grapes, gained altitude and then swooped with astonishing force toward his handler.
Genghis was lured by pigeon feathers tethered to the end of a rope that Alaverdian twirled with precision. Each time the falcon got close, Alaverdian pulled back the lure.
“This whole process is devastating from the prey’s point of view,” said Alaverdian, 39, who repeated the performance several times until the magpies vanished over a hill. Genghis was rewarded with a bloody pigeon carcass pulled out of a Ziploc bag in the SUV cup holder.
The constant pressure encourages unwanted birds to seek their meals elsewhere, sometimes to the detriment of neighbors. Alaverdian was once cursed out by a vineyard manager next door. He took it as another sign his falcons were hitting their stride. In the five years he’s worked at the vineyard, netting has decreased from 95% to 5%.
That makes Alaverdian’s $700 day rate a bargain by comparison, though it might take weeks or even months to take care of the problem.
Though effective, there aren’t enough certified master falconers like Alaverdian to expand beyond a niche market in the nation’s $15-billion fruit industry.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said falconry is growing in popularity. Traditionally a blood sport for the rich, it has found a second life in the world of bird abatement.
E. & J. Gallo Winery has been using falcons for eight years in Sonoma County. Kendall Jackson Winery has been doing it just as long in Monterey and Sonoma counties. The birds are also employed at airports, landfills and beaches.
Still, not just anyone can pick up the craft. The life of a falconer can be grueling.
Alaverdian, whose Armenian family fled war-torn Iran in the 1980s, said the job requires a comfort with ruggedness and solitude. He spends months without a break on a single vineyard or farm.
He hasn’t bought commercial meat in 14 years. He eats salmon, trout, elk and deer he catches in the wild. He’s so engrossed with his work, he can’t help but flinch when he sees a flock of birds even when he’s driving back to his motel.
“When I was in Washington, I was asked why I didn’t go to church,” said Alaverdian, who sports a perpetual five o’clock shadow and an intensity on par with his prized predators. “I said, ‘Unless the starlings go to church too, I’m not going either.’”