The Saker falcon circles a couple hundred feet away, intent on a bird-size leather bundle fashioned to resemble a pair of small wings. Containing a morsel of rabbit meat, the package swings in a low arc at the end of a line secured to a lure pole about the length of a fishing rod; holding the other end of the pole, trainer Steve Siebert is intent, in turn, on his year-old falcon, Shadow.
Shadow wheels and plunges toward the bait, flinging herself skyward again when Siebert yanks the food away at the last second. After a few more passes, Siebert allows the bird, about 18 inches from head to tail, to nail the bait package and gobble its contents.
“They work for the food,” said Marsha Flamm, a fellow falconer and sometime partner, as well as director of the Raptor House Rehabilitation Center in Yakima, Washington.
Flamm said she and Siebert stake out the orchard around dawn to study the starlings’ feeding habits and determine where to work out the falcons for maximum exposure.
A few such demonstrations are enough to drive off most starlings intent on pillaging cherries. After a week or two, Siebert said, even the stubborn birds “will see there’s a new sheriff in town.”
“Sometimes they’ll move right out of the area,” Flamm said. “They’ll realize there’s a hunting falcon around. Every time they see them, they’re in hunting mode. It really impresses the problem birds.”
Siebert noted that the idea is to intimidate rather than kill the starlings.
“One reason it’s attractive to many people is that it’s nonlethal,” Siebert said. “We’re just telling [the starlings] that this block of cherries isn’t where you should be.”
Depending on the circumstances, Siebert added, intimidation is used in conjunction with scaring starlings off with loud noises and, sometimes, trapping and killing them. Laws regulating the activity permit falconers to use the dead birds as training bait and food for the falcons.
Siebert, a self-employed carpenter, said that depending on the situation, he charges anywhere from $200 to $400 a day for his falconry work with Flamm. He also works with another falconry partner in Goldendale, Washington.
The falconers promote their business by attending fruit growers’ conferences and by word of mouth from their customers. Siebert said he initially was approached a few years ago by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who hired him to use his falcons to scare off predators near salmon-rearing ponds.
Falcons have been similarly used for years to scare off birds near airports and vineyards, particularly in California, said Siebert, who’s working to cultivate interest among the large, untapped market of wine grape growers in the central region of Washington State.