Edible Monterey Bay

ON THE VINE

Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 11.02.34 AMIt’s late August and at the edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains appellation the marine layer has settled into the Arroyo Seco Valley. A soft, golden light washes over Hahn Family Wines’ 650-acre network of vineyards. The grapes are nearing their peak sugar content and from the onset of ripening, known as véraison, to harvest time, this extremely valuable fruit must be tirelessly protected. So on the outskirts of the vineyard, Jim and Kathleen Tigan have set up camp with three dogs and six of their birds of prey. The husband and wife behind Tactical Avian Predators are deep into their sixth year at Hahn, working their magic against the European starling.

Starlings are an invasive bird—first introduced to the United States in the 1890s by an eccentric named Eugene Schieffelin, who released 100 of them in New York City’s Central Park as part of his quest to bring every bird mentioned in the work of William Shakespeare to America. He didn’t have much luck with Shakespeare’s other muses, like skylarks and nightingales, but the noisy and ravenous starlings have since multiplied to a menace more than 250 million strong. Starlings have a taste for grapes, and some wineries that aim to do their work in sustainable ways are turning to the 4,000-year-old practice of falconry to guard against attacks.

Seeking to see the Tigans in action for myself, I meet them in Doctor’s Vineyard, where the grapes for Hahn’s high-end Pinot Noirs are grown.

We pile into their truck and head out toward the northern boundary, where the starlings have stubbornly taken roost.

On board and ready to go are the Tigans’ two salukis—dogs bred in the Middle East since ancient times expressly for falconry— a wire-haired pointer and two peregrine falcons, “Zsa Zsa” and “Bibi.”

The peregrines have been chosen for the morning shift since they can’t handle the heat of the afternoon very well. They are also best suited for wide-open expanses like those of the Hahn vineyards, which allow them to dive at speeds of up to 200mph.

“For vineyards surrounded by trees, power lines or buildings, the peregrine is just too fast, and we use the Saker falcons or Merlin hybrids instead,” says Kathleen.

Owning such a variety of birds of prey, of course, requires maintenance, and that costs money. But Andy Mitchell, Hahn’s director of viticulture, says that when he hires falconers, the numbers still work out in the winery’s favor.

According to Mitchell, the cost of hiring a falconer is about $2.50 per acre, but that is a minute fraction of economic damage that starlings are capable of: The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated this year that annual wine grape losses to birds are running at as much as $49 million per year, ten times the amount lost in 1972.

Hahn holds Sustainability in Practice (SIP) certification, and a big part of sustainability involves using preventative measures, something conventional agricultural practices are less apt to emphasize.

Vineyards commonly use netting and Mylar tape to guard against feathered thieves, but both of these products are made from petroleum-based plastic, something about which Mitchell isn’t keen.

“We take our Sustainability in Practice certification very seriously. Hiring falconers to do what they do out there is an integral part of our philosophy,” he says.

While it is not always economical or even necessary for small vineyards, some larger growers like Hahn are choosing falconry as a long-term solution in their fight agaist avian pests.

Back out at Doctor’s Vineyard, the Tigans work the rows of vines in a synchronized groove, resembling skilled martial artists. Jim stands more than 6-feet, 4-inches tall and is an ex-Coast Guard pilot. Kathleen’s confidence and quietude evoke the Greek goddess, Artemis. Still, the two have an ease and wit to them, and it is clear they love their job and their animals.

The Tigans’ approach is to identify all the elements of nature that exist within a pest situation and work these elements to their advantage; in keeping with the principals of sustainability, the Tigans work with, not against, nature.

“Part of the reason we camp out in the middle of the vineyard for months,” Jim says between flights, “is that we have to know the starlings and blackbirds as much as we need to know the terrain.”

The Tigans work with their raptors for about three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon and evening.

Kathleen is on the chase with her peregrine, Zsa Zsa. She stands on the cab of the truck and calls to Jim, “Pyro!”

Jim fires off a pyrotechnic flare, startling up a “dragon” of starlings, as the birds’ formations are known.

Zsa Zsa takes this as her starting pistol and after fluffing her feathers the way a runner flexes her muscles, she takes flight after the smaller birds. After Zsa Zsa corrals them for about five “stoops,” or downward swoops, the starlings find a dip in the terrain and try to take cover between the grapevines.

But at that point, Annabelle, the wire-haired pointer, races down the rows with the pure joy that only a working dog can possess and frightens the birds back up, allowing Zsa Zsa to recoup her chase.

Working together, the quartet of people and animals finally scares the starlings past the border of the vineyard.

Watching the starlings climb and depart, one quickly sees why their flocks have been traditionally called dragons—hundreds or even thousands of birds whirl into changing shapes that are meant to confuse their predators—and at times, they actually look like dragons.

The intermittent pyrotechnic flares the Tigans use can also be menacing, but they are mild compared to the air cannons that many berry farmers and some vineyards in California resort to using.

In fact, if a vineyard is ensconced in a semi-urban area or borders a riparian wetland, the noise pollution from the cannons can become intolerable for humans and wildlife. The cannons also lose their effectiveness. Jim says the birds simply figure out that the cannons signify food, not danger.

The falconers not only work in harmony with nature but also with each other.

“Oftentimes, if we see that the starlings are going into Kendall Jackson’s vineyard, which borders this one, I’ll call their falconer, who is supposed to be my competition, but the whole point is to see the entire picture,” Jim says. “The starlings don’t see property lines. As falconers, we uphold respect, and we work together.”

Still, there isn’t much of a critical mass of falconers with which to work in our area. Hahn, Kendall Jackson and Blackburn Wine are the three main wineries in the area that employ falconers extensively.

Kenny Elvin, an independent contractor for Airstrike Bird Control, another falconry business that operates in California, believes that it’s not only the birds and wineries that have to adapt to survive—it’s also the falconry business itself.

“What we need is for the smaller wineries to create co-ops and hire us collectively, “ he says. “Share the price, you know? We can only have one stint at a time as falconers, so you may as well be economical with time and money. There are plenty of times a smaller winery benefits from their huge winery neighbor using falcons in the vineyard. Let’s just make it official and cooperate.”

Joe Zanger, of Casa de Fruta Winery in Hollister, agrees. “We benefit directly from Blackburn’s falconers. This year was the best year we’ve had yet as far as drops in numbers of starlings, although we can’t use the falconers outright,” he says.

Resembling a lithe sundial, Kathleen calls back in Zsa Zsa by holding a gym whistle between her teeth, swinging a sunfish lure with a tennis ball tied to it with one hand and holding her gauntlet in the other.

Once Zsa Zsa returns to Kathleen, she is rewarded with bits of raw quail meat. The raptor is panting, and Kathleen sprays her down with a small water bottle as she perches on her owner’s gauntlet. Birds of prey attach strongly to their owners, and Zsa Zsa is no exception. She eats, drinks from the spray and then settles down when Kathleen caps her in a beautiful, hand-tooled leather hood. The hood covers the raptor’s eyes and helps her to stay calm. For an animal  that depends primarily on sharp sight, too much visual stimulation can be stressful.

It’s hard to imagine Jim racing down the road in a borrowed car with a wig on his head, but this is what a man who knows the intelligence of starlings will resort to.

Screen Shot 2013-12-07 at 11.02.25 AMWith the noisy starlings gone, the silence of the vineyard is noticeable, and the whisper of the fishing lure is reminiscent of the sound of the falcon slicing the air as she circled just minutes before.

Kathleen has been the principal falconer in the vineyard for the last two weeks. Jim and his birds have split their time at Hahn with another job of scaring away the seagulls at Pebble Beach. In fact, falconers are most commonly hired by public municipalities and recreation areas to rid gulls and pigeons from beaches, parks and, most of all, dumps.

One of the reasons that falconry is so successful when it comes to bird abatement is the fact that a trained raptor rarely actually kills a starling or other prey, but instead will relentlessly harass an entire flock.

In the wild, starlings and other birds that are hunted by raptors rely on safety in numbers and expect that their predator will eat and then disappear for a while. But because the trained birds don’t stop for meals, they never let up on their quarry.

“After a while, the starlings and blackbirds can’t justify getting their calories from the grapes because they’re using too much energy to escape our birds,” Jim says.

Successful falconry also takes a little deception.

It’s hard to imagine Jim racing down the road in a borrowed car with a wig on his head, but this is what a man who knows the intelligence of starlings will resort to.

“I figured out that the starlings have sentinels out on the highway who know my car, who know my silhouette. It’s more than the timing, they know me and they’re out of there before I can even get one of my birds ready to go. They can detect us up to 12 miles away. But one of my mentors, master falconer Michael Cook, always tells me that we only need to be slightly smarter than the birds,” Jim says with a laugh.

Still, ingenuity is everything.

During one job, the starlings were so aggressive that Jim had to resort to tethering a helium balloon to the ground and sending it aloft, with a starling in a small cage attached to it. Suspended in the air, the bird shrieked a distress call for a couple of hours, and the starlings eventually left. That isn’t the norm, however, and the Tigans more often make good use of their “quiver” of raptors.

As we walk a fallow field behind Doctor’s Vineyard, I ask Kathleen if drinking wine is a different experience for her now.

“Of course,” she says. “We love our vineyard.”

Andrea Riordan is a Santa Cruz-based poet and food politics writer.

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