Falcons for Hire

01/01/2009 02:00:00 AM

By Elizabeth Ashby

For years, air cannons, owl boxes and other noisy devices have been used to scare away pests—especially birds—wreaking havoc on a grower’s crop. But as urban sprawl continues, neighborhoods are popping up around agricultural land, and the use of such raucous tools is being frowned upon.

A more environmentally friendly and much less noisy alternative just might offer some help.

Falconry is the oldest, most regulated field sport in the world, says Neil Ottoway, president of the Florida Hawking Fraternity, Davenport, adding that falconry was first developed in Asia nearly 3,000 years ago. Today, modern falconers hunt and fly their birds for demonstration, education and film, says Tim Christian, a master falconer based in Venice. The falcons also are used commercially to drive depredation birds away in places such as airports, landfills, beaches, schools and golf courses.

The use of falcons in agriculture is not widespread, but the increasing desire to be eco-friendly and polite to neighbors is causing some growers to take interest in the birds.

A falcon’s place on the farm

Christian says falcons are useful for scaring away flocks of depredation birds, such as robins and crows, who like to feed on small, delicate crops such as grapes, cherries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. The falconer flies the falcons over the crop or designated area of land often times in the morning and evening when depredation birds tend to feed. The depredation birds are fearful of the falcon and fly away.

“Normally, just the appearance is enough to drive the depredation birds away from the site,” Ottoway says. “They see the silhouette of a falcon or hawk, and it is ingrained in them that they fly away. You have thousands of years of biology working for you.”

Falcons can fly all day if the weather is good, but they can get overheated just like humans, making the middle of the day in extremely hot locations uninviting for falcons. They also don’t fly well in the rain or snow.

Internet searches reveal several companies who specialize in falconry.

California grape growers have used falconry for quite some time to keep birds out of the vineyards. Air-Superiority Falconry Services, Ramona, Calif., has been in business since 1995 using falconry—also known as the sport of kings—to keep depredation birds at bay. Christian says grape growers typically use falconry for six to eight weeks during harvest.

He says cherry growers also look to falconry for bird abatement during the three to four weeks of cherry harvest. He says one cherry company told him it was losing 30 percent of its crop to birds before using falconry. “When they started using falcons, they said their losses were negligible,” Christian says. “Falcons won’t get it to zero, but it probably will cut losses 50 percent to 75 percent.”

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