Atop a hill in the Carneros region on an overcast morning last week, Rebecca Rosen opened the back of her Toyota Tundra and lifted out one of the three hooded birds perched within – a 6-year-old anatum Peregrine falcon named Rambo.
Rambo’s mission that morning: Protecting chardonnay grapes owned by Bouchaine Vineyards from hungry, smaller birds.
“Falconry,” said Rosen, owner of Authentic Abatement, “is one of the more effective ways of scaring birds. Because if you don’t leave you get eaten.”
As harvest dwindles for early ripening varietals like chardonnay and pinot noir, the lingering grapes yet to be picked are for now still in need of protection from the threat of birds, particularly in the southern Carneros region.
Netting, propane-based bird cannons, or some combination of the two, are favored methods among growers to stem the loss of their fruit from the blackbirds, starlings and house finches common in the area. Still others have opted for a more predator-based approach.
That’s where Rosen comes in.
A chorus of sharp bangs, the reports of unseen bird cannons, rose from a vineyard not owned by Bouchaine farther down the hill, as Rosen removed Rambo’s hood and clipped a transponder to one of his rear feathers. With the tracker affixed, Rambo was soon airborne and Rosen set off through the vineyard.
Walking between two vineyard blocks as Rambo circled overhead, Rosen explained, “He’ll just sort of cover the whole area. If he sees birds and he wants me to flush them, he’ll kind of just circle that area incessantly.”
The “flushing” is done by Rosen’s dog Alec, who will chase after birds that, upon seeing Rambo, have held close to the ground in the vineyard.
After a few minutes, Rosen whistled and called to Rambo. Drawing a leather lure and string from the pouch at her side, she unraveled and began to whirl it in wide arcs above her head. Taking the cue, Rambo adjusted his flight path, making a steep swoop toward the lure, diving, passing and circling high above to dive again.
Lure flying like this, she explained, is done to intimidate pest birds, “to make it look like they’re more aggressively trying to hunt because this is how they behave if they’re trying to hunt something.” As Rambo swooped, rose and circled above the vineyard, the site was all but vacant of any birds but him.
Falconry falls under one of the two options that exist for protecting grapes, Rosen mused. “You can either scare the birds away or you can protect your grapes so that the birds can’t get to them.” The difference simply comes down to dollars and cents, she said, “because it depends on how many grapes you’re losing, you know, how much damage you’re incurring.”
Then there’s the acreage. For smaller properties in more populated areas, netting is the more effective option. “But if you’re out in the middle of nowhere and there’s nowhere for the birds to hide, falconry is very effective and nowhere near as expensive,” she said.
And while birds may become accustomed to regular cannon use and learn to exploit ineffective netting, Rosen says with falcons and the threat to smaller birds of being eaten, that edge is never lost.
The falcons Rosen uses are all captive-raised. Per federal law, falconers can capture wild falcons and fly them for sport, but cannot use wild birds in for-profit capacities like those at Authentic Abatement.
Prospective falconers will apprentice for two years within the sport before being promoted by their sponsors to general class falconers. Rosen followed this track, apprenticing and then working for other falconry companies in the Napa area before starting out on her own in 2011. She took to working with Cakebread Cellars and has been growing her clientele ever since, all by word of mouth, she said.
That was how Rosen met Chris Kajani in 2015. Winemaker and general manager at Bouchaine, Kajani said the logic in opting for falconry over a method like bird cannons was simple. “Bird cannons don’t work … we try not to use anything that doesn’t work.”
Prior to contracting with Authentic Abatement, Bouchaine used netting with mixed results, Kajani said. But for the birds that pester their vineyards, “there’s definitely something in their DNA where they’re terrified of falcons and it makes an impression and a difference,” she said. “And since we’ve started working with Rebecca we probably have half the bird damage that we’ve seen before.”
Rosen hires other falconers depending on the time of the growing season and the amount of grapes that need protecting, and will generally provide the birds, though most falconry companies require a falconer to have their own birds.
But since she began working in 2005, the cost of owning a falcon has become prohibitive, having risen from $300 or $400 then to $3,000 or $4,000 today, she said. “It’s just exploded. And part of it is because falconry-based bird abatement really exploded the last five years.”
Each falcon also has a unique personality, Rosen said, which does not always mesh with the falconers she hires. “They lack certain parts of their brain that give them deep thought and deep emotion,” she said of her birds, “but they have the basic emotions down, like hungry, happy, angry, sad.” They also have trust and mistrust, depending on the falconer.
“Everything is based off of trust. We use food as a catalyst for the relationship, but if it was all about food, then a hungry wild hawk would land on your glove and eat. So there has to be trust there.”
Her birds are also not without their own natural predators, including golden eagles and red-tailed hawks. Rosen has lost birds before, she said; one to a red-tail hawk and another to a car. The birds can also simply fly the coop if they wish, and have done so before. “They always have that ability to say, ‘Well, if I don’t want to be here anymore, I don’t have to.’”
As of now, Rosen is one of only a handful of falconers working with the local wine industry, as the companies she worked with previously have since left the area for the more lucrative blueberry market in Washington state, she noted. And today, as word of mouth between vineyard managers and growers continues to lengthen her list of winery clients, others in Napa are also taking note and highlighting Rosen’s work.
Last month, she put on a falconry demonstration in the vineyards for staff from the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which in turn created a video of the practice for its Facebook page.
“One of our roles here is to keep the agricultural industry informed of a variety of practices, whether it’s pests, disease, management issues or changes in laws and regulations,” said Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark. “In this case: different methods of controlling birds.”
Having increased their use of social media and technology in recent months to highlight different aspects of the county’s agriculture, the demonstration was “just an opportunity for us to highlight an old technology, if you will,” Clark said.