Ben Dover sells kestrel boxes mainly to cherry growers, though they’re also catching on with grape, apple, and blueberry growers.
Some enterprising business people are harnessing the hunting prowess of falcons and kestrels to rid Washington State orchards of starlings that rob growers of as much as 10 percent of their crop. While their methods may differ, they get similar results: significantly higher cherry yields and more profits for growers.
Former grower Ben Dover was so impressed after installing a couple of kestrel nesting boxes in his Yakima cherry orchard, which he has since sold, that he went into business selling and installing them. He has sold more than 450 of the boxes since launching his Orchard Guard business two years ago.
Dover’s friend Lee Stream, who retired after 30 years as a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said kestrels are plentiful throughout the Yakima Valley.
The key to attracting kestrels, the smallest members of the hawk family, also known as sparrow hawks, is providing them a well-situated nesting box with a good view of their surroundings and, hence, their prey.
“It’s a little bit like that movie Field of Dreams, Stream said. “If you build it, they will come.
“If you have boxes put up where kestrels will come to them, it works pretty well.”
Although Dover sells mainly to cherry growers, his boxes are catching on with grape, apple, and blueberry farmers as well.
“I tell them I don’t claim to have experience with apples and grapes,” Dover said. “The only claim I make is that it worked on my cherries.”
Through trial and error, Dover has determined where to position the boxes.
“I walk the orchards with the farmers and decide on the best place to put them up,” he said.
Because people make the birds skittish, he advises growers to put boxes as far as possible from human activity. Once the birds are established, people don’t bother them as much.
The Audubon Society notes as well that starlings, which nest close to buildings, often appropriate boxes installed too close to humans, defeating the purpose.
“If kestrels really want to be there,” Dover said, “those other birds don’t have a chance. And once they’ve established a nest in the box, they’re likely to return and breed.”
Visiting the orchard he used to own, Dover points out a wind machine that was popular with pesky starlings. “I used to have to get up there every day and clean out the wind machine