Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: Flying Lessons

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I keep chatting cheerily, trying to pretend that watching a falcon rip the head off a dead baby chick is nothing shocking or new to me.

After flushing a flock of starlings up and away from the ripe winegrapes, “Barb” the Barbary falcon circles overhead, eyeing the swinging lure. Rebecca of Authentic Abatement is using it to call her back to hand. Once Barb has landed, she’s rewarded with the aforementioned baby chick. A falcon’s gotta eat too, right?

Barb is a professional – trained to hunt ducks, but now learning the tricks of the trade in the vineyard. During training, Barb liked to hit her prey so hard she cracked the bottoms of her feet. This falcon is all work, a feathered warrior of the skies. As soon as Rebecca takes off the hood, the falcon’s head swivels around hungrily, eyes focusing to the distance, hunting for prey. After a minute or two of searching, she sees what she wants and takes off. If she could, she’d grab a bird or two just for the fun of it, but her main purpose is to make her presence known and scare off hungry flocks of starlings and house finches.

Rebecca and her falcon

credit Debby Zygielbaum

Starlings are not native to North America, but were introduced to New York’s Central Park around 1890 by folks who had the bright idea that all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays should be brought to the New World. A monumentally stupid notion that, in a little over a hundred years, has resulted in millions of starlings and a huge threat to agriculture from coast to coast.

Until now, my bird control options were limited: sparkly mylar tape, big round balloons painted with eerie eyes, incessant alarm call recordings, or “Zon” cannons – propane fueled tubes that go BOOM when the timer tells them to. But birds acclimate readily to their environment and all of these methods lose efficacy over time (never mind pissing off the human neighbors). We’ve all seen the pictures of that shiny mylar tape in bird nests!

The most effective (and expensive) option is netting. Bird netting can be made of cloth or exuded plastic and is wrapped around the vines, row by row, so birds cannot get to the fruit. But now we have our vines wrapped in plastic – harder to access if we need to adjust the crop, pull laterals, harvest. Plus, it can change the microclimate and leave the vines more susceptible to fungal diseases.

Which is why I am so excited to be working with Rebecca and Barb. No more annoying made-in-China-plastic-bird netting getting caught on everything. No more neighbors sneaking over the fence to cut the lines on my Zon cannons (true story). Just a woman and her falcon, quietly, painstakingly, patrolling the skies. I’m really hoping this relationship works out for a long, long time.

 

Debby Zygielbaum is the farmer at Napa Valley’s Robert Sinskey Vineyards, where she’s worked in organic and biodynamic wine production for over ten years. In the past, she has worked as a naturalist, botanist, and horticulturist, taking her to locations from Australian rainforests to Costa Rican jungles. For Nopalize, Debby will chronicle her life as a “Dirt Farmer” at one of California’s top-regarded wineries. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.