Once considered pests, hawks, owls and other predatory birds are useful to wine growers

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Julie Johnson, who owns and operates Tres Sabores at the western end of the Napa Valley, home to barn owls since 1987. She is one of many wineries quick to praise the inherent ability of birds to protect and maintain the land.

Once they have ripened for harvest, vine grapes are quite tasty, attracting munchies and other animals such as voles or rabbits. Many wineries keep these intruders at bay with the dedicated and instinctive service of owls, hawks, bluebirds and more.

Barn Owl at Tres Saborres Vineyard / Photo courtesy Tres Saborres

Some winemakers, including those who grow fruit for organic wines, avoid pesticides and artificial pest control methods. Bird cannons, intended to scare away nibbling birds, just don’t work, says Chris Kajani, winemaker and CEO of Bouchaine vineyards in Carneros. She is also not a fan of Mylar banners or fake predatory birds.

Kajani is however immensely grateful for the work of the Bouchaine hawks. Conditioned, trained and managed by Rebecca Rosen of Authentic reduction, these birds of prey skillfully control the region’s problematic pest population.

Barbie the Barbary Falcon flying over the Bouchiane Vineyards / Photo by Tyler Sladen
Barbie the Barbary Falcon flying over the Bouchiane Vineyards / Photo by Tyler Sladen

Bouchaine’s 87 planted acres lie under telephone lines, a great place to roost for starlings. “The birds sit on these lines and then fly away and have a delicious snack on our grapes all day,” says Kajani. In recent years, their ambitions have been largely thwarted as EB, another Rosen’s hawk, dives menacingly above them.

EB, whom Rosen calls “employee of the month,” isn’t looking to kill or harm grape-obsessed starlings. Rather, he acts as a deterrent, one who knows that his work will be rewarded with frozen birds that his master awaits. Although the training never ends, Rosen notes that “training an animal to do something that it naturally wants to do is so much easier.”

The natural inclination of hawks to attack small birds is useful in vineyards that do not have a falconer on duty. TO Chateau Grand Traverse In Traverse City, Mich., kestrels, which are the smallest hawks in North America, “minimize damage to our grapes from flocks of birds, primarily starlings,” says Jay Budd, director vineyard assistant.

American Kestrel on Gamble Family Vineyards / Photo courtesy of Gamble Family Vineyards
American Kestrel on Gamble Family Vineyards / Photo courtesy of Gamble Family Vineyards

Although kestrels are encouraged to nest near vineyard borders via cellar-maintained nesting boxes, Budd says, “They are wild birds and we have no control over them.”

Likewise, a pest control team made up of New Zealand falcons Lawson Dry Hills, help protect the grapes by keeping small songbirds away from the fruit as it ripens, says Belinda Jackson, the winery’s marketing manager. New Zealand’s native hawks offer “excellent protection, especially for Pinot Noir grapes,” she says.

However, birds aren’t a major problem for Lawson Dry Hills, so they can mostly get away with animals coming and going “as they please,” Jackson explains.

A hawk named Martha has just come out in Lawson Dry Hills Vineyard, New Zealand / Photo courtesy of Lawson Dry Hills
A hawk named Martha has just come out in Lawson Dry Hills Vineyard, New Zealand / Photo courtesy of Lawson Dry Hills

The bird population of Bouchaine is more problematic. Kajani estimates that since the arrival of Rosen and his hawks more than five years ago, the damage caused by the birds of Bouchaine has decreased considerably, “instead of being 50%, it may be 10%, ”she says.

Indeed, the need to hire a falconer and the constant service he provides depend on each vineyard. “What efficiency [falconry] It depends on the pressure exerted by the birds, ”says Rosen. Not all winegrowers can justify the often expensive practice of hiring a falconer. And not all vineyards need it.

Johnson pays for his owl boxes, which cost a few hundred dollars, and nonprofits help with the necessary maintenance. She says owl boxes need to be attractive, have good ventilation, be multi-chambered, and have a good vineyard orientation. “If you put a barn owl box, they will come,” she said. “Put out a blue bird box, they will come. “

Tom Gamble, from Gamble family vineyards in Napa Valley, is another proponent of building habitats that essentially help preserve the land. Gamble says the estate has birdhouses to complement all of the riparian and upland trees on his property. “We can’t build them fast enough,” he adds.

Prairie Falcon and White-tailed Kite on Gamble Vineyard / Photo courtesy of Gamble Vineyard
Prairie Falcon and White-tailed Kite on Gamble Vineyard / Photo courtesy of Gamble Vineyard

Gamble credits the kestrels that linger in the vineyard to not only eat insects, but also catch voles and mice. Large raptors, including red tail, red shoulder, cooper, and pointed-shin hawk prey on small rodents and nibbling rabbits. The shift change occurs after dusk when Gamble says the bats are joining forces with the owls.

This crew is a formidable opponent of any unwanted species invading the vineyard at all times. Birds, bats, and owls “make survival work as a rabbit or rodent a stressful, 24-hour occupation,” says Gamble.


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