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Tribune, The (San Luis Obispo, CA)
August 22, 2003
Section: A-Section
Edition: Tribune
Page: A1

Michaela Baltasar
The Tribune

With their keen eyesight, good hunting skills and speed, falcons have become the preferred method for some local wine-grape growers who want to rid their vineyards of pests and keep costs to a minimum.

This year, nine vineyards in San Luis Obispo County have hired a falconer to scare away thousands of starlings -- small, mottled birds known as "winged rats," whose voracious appetites lead them to consume entire crops of grapes.

With wine grapes as the county's most valuable crop -- earning almost $118 million last year, according to the county agriculture report -- keeping starlings out of a vineyard is vital.

"I've seen entire vineyards eaten up -- no grapes left," said Hank Ashby, manager of French Camp Vineyards in Shandon and the first local grower to use falcons for bird abatement.

Starlings can also cause problems for winemakers. The birds' beaks and feet poke holes into grapes, increasing the spread of bacteria and mold that can kill yeast and inhibit the fermentation process involved in making wine.

To combat starlings, vineyard managers have used methods such as firing shotguns or tying glittering mylar tape to the vines to scare birds away. Ashby said those methods have been ineffective.

"I've used just about every method out there," Ashby said. "Falcons are the most effective means of bird control we've found."

Placing protective netting over grapes is a good option, but netting costs $200 to $350 an acre -- too expensive for a large vineyard like the 1,750-acre French Camp.

Ashby said he pays only around $9 an acre for the falcons.

He first contracted with Tom Savory, a falconer based near Mount Shasta, for the 1998 harvest. He has brought Savory back every year since.

Savory and his six-man crew bring 17 Lanner, Saker and Barbary falcons to the Central Coast each year. They arrived in the county last week and will be here through September.

The falcons are flown one at a time, at dawn and at dusk, when starlings are most active. One falcon can clear up to 15 acres of starlings in a single flight, which lasts 45 minutes to an hour.

Starlings will return to the vineyard after several days, so the falcon has to be flown throughout the period before and during harvest.

"The first thing I do is look for a dragon -- that's my name for a cloud of starlings because they look like a Chinese dragon when the falcon starts chasing them," said Savory, who charges $65 an hour. "Then I release the falcon."

Savory has worked with falcons for 40 years but turned professional just five years ago. He does bird control for vineyards in San Luis Obispo County and the Napa Valley and hopes to train his falcons to fly in berry farms as well.

As Savory's falcons work, they wheel and plunge in the air above the vineyards, sending up small clouds of starlings caught feeding on the grapes. The smaller birds head for cover in a nearby tree.

"It's amazing to watch the falcons," said Bryan Wallingford, vineyard manager for Filipponi & Thompson and San Juan vineyards in Shandon.

"We decided to try it one year, and after we saw how well it worked, we're thinking about selling the bird-netting machine. Tom just does an awesome job."

TRIBUNE PHOTOS BY JOE JOHNSTON - Captain John flies the skies above French Camp Vineyards in Shandon. Below, falconer Tom Savory exercises Captain Hook.

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