One might infer that birds aren’t too smart—hence the term “bird-brained.” But when it’s ripe fruit time, birds know it and are quite effective at getting to it, defeating all kinds of devices, even nets.
But one ruse that causes nuisance birds to panic and flee is other birds—birds of prey, raptors such as hawks and falcons.
This has encouraged the growth of businesses that provide, as a service, predator birds like peregrine and aplomado falcons and Harris hawks to drive nuisance birds away from orchards, vineyards, and blueberry plantations.
Justin Robertson with Advanced Avian Abatement, based in Missouri, said he became hooked on working with falcons when he was about eight years old. “It was a lifestyle that became a career,” he said. “You have to be passionate about it. It takes years to learn how to do it well.”
When a grower hires Robertson or his partner Robert Payne, it’s usually for a season that would run for about six weeks. The idea is to start early, before the fruit is ripe, and then to keep nuisance birds scared away as the fruit ripens and attracts more and more birds.
Robertson brings three to five birds, usually different species. The aplomado falcon, native to Peru, is a great bird to work with, he says, because it not only soars above the trees, it comes right into the trees and makes true believers out of magpies, robins, starlings, grackles, cedar waxwings, red-winged blackbirds, and others that invade, hide and feed in bushes and canopies.
Aplomados are a relatively new falcon abatement species in the United States, he said, only receiving abatement approval from fish and game officials in the last seven to ten years. Aplomado is an unusual Spanish word for “lead-colored.”
Aplomados have great stamina and can work hard in hot weather, he said. Peregrines are larger birds that can fly higher and cover more ground.
He’s there with his birds from dawn to dusk each day, rotating birds throughout the day and resting (weathering) them during the heat of the day.
“The idea is to keep a bird in the air constantly,” Robertson said. “If you take an hour off for lunch, the birds will figure that out. You’d better not take the same hour every day.”
The raptors themselves need to take a break every few hours. And they’ll not be satisfied just chasing away birds. At the end of a session, they’ll be allowed to catch a bird. “That’s what they’re there for,” Robertson said. “They want to catch things.”
The raptors can be trained to merely chase and not to catch—if they’re given some other suitable reward, some other food. The falcons are not pets like dogs or cats and don’t relate that way to their handlers.
“It’s all about rewards given for them behaving the way you want them to,” he said.
That doesn’t mean there’s not a partnership. The falcons come to their handlers for rewards, and work with their handlers.
Robertson says sometimes he’ll walk an orchard, flushing out birds, and the falcons will follow and chase them away.
Nuisance birds are quick to learn, and one thing they learn is what is a real threat to them and what isn’t. They learn that propane cannons and other noisemakers won’t hurt them and that scarecrows won’t either.
Robertson tells of being hired by a grower who had netted his orchards—and needed him to scare the birds out from under the nets. The birds had found ways to squeeze through nets, finding or making holes to enter.
One thing nuisance birds don’t seem to get used to is those other birds that want to eat them.
Payne has been taking his birds to Washington State tree fruit orchards and blueberries for several years. He’s going again later this spring to help a cherry grower in the south central part of the state.
He said the Peruvian aplomado falcon is the perfect falcon species to use in fruit crops like grapes, cherries, blueberries, and apples because it likes to chase small- to medium-sized birds—the same sizes that give growers the most problems.
“They’ll go after birds as small as house finches and as large as magpies,” said Payne, adding that peregrine falcons like to chase larger prey. “But for aplomados, European starlings, robins, and such are the perfect size for them to eat.”
Brad Felger, a partner in Airstrike Bird Control, Inc., breeds falcons and estimates he has between 70 and 80 birds at his base in Mount Vernon, Washington. The company operates in Washington, Oregon, and California, and is headquartered in Paso Robles.
He finds that different types of falcons work together effectively. The aplomados are good at finding birds undercover, while the peregrines are good at pushing big flocks of birds out of the sky.
Airstrike works primarily with larger growers. Felger said it takes a certain amount of acreage for hiring falcons to make sense economically and logistically. The greater the value of the crop, the easier it is to justify.
“When they start getting into hundreds of acres, it really is inexpensive for them—it’s a fraction of what netting would cost,” he said. “But the guy with 20 acres, he’s going to be better off by far doing the netting.”
Airstrike sometimes provides falcons for groups of smaller growers who are in the same vicinity and the growers just share the cost at the end of the season.
Although birds do get accustomed to scare devices, they can be integrated with falcon control for contiguous fields, Felger said.
The falconer will fly falcons for a period at one of the fields and then move on to the next. When he leaves, he switches on an electronic device playing bird distress calls in his absence.
“The birds believe there’s a falcon there because they’ve just seen it,” he said. “By the time they figure out it’s not real, he’s coming back again.” •