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NorCal Wine Blog

Falcons are for the Birds - Of Falcons, 49ers and Vineyard Bird Abatement

This weekend, the San Francisco 49ers face Atlanta for the NFC Championship. Northern Californians are normally both good-natured and nature-loving. At the moment though, we are decidedly hostile toward Falcons. We don’t like their uniforms or the way they fly across the field. We don’t want to see Matt Ryan air one out or their defense challenge our air superiority. We’ll cheer for the 49ers to ruffle, perhaps pluck, their feathers. Falcons, boo!

But, after this week, we should go back to liking falcons. And not just for their handsome profiles and breath-taking aerobatics. Trained falcons protect vineyards from grape-stealing birds.

Falconry experts Jim and Kathleen Tigan operate Tactical Avian Predators. For ten years, Jim has used his trained raptors to rid clients of troublesome starlings. The service is used by pet food manufacturers and oil companies, blueberry farmers and golf courses, car builders and even the city of San Francisco.

The customer closest to the Tigan’s heart is Hahn Family Wines in the Santa Lucia Highlands. After nearly a decade working with them, Jim Tigan says it feels like family. The feeling is mutual. “I think the world of Jim Tigan and his falcons," Bill Leigon, president of Hahn Family Wines, told me.

Jim Tigan releases a falcon at Hahn Family Vineyards.
Photo: Tactical Avian Predators

During the most crucial part of the year — a six week or longer period beginning just before veraison — the Tigan’s essentially move their household from Reno, Nevada to the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA vineyard. “We pack up the trailer, the dogs and the cats and work the thousand-acre vineyard seven days a week, sun up to sundown,” Kathleen tells me. The Tigans keep in close touch with Hahn director of vineyard operations Andy Mitchell. He tells them when and where there will be green drops or other harvest activities and where the grapes are becoming ripe. The Tigans target falcons on those areas to ensure there are no easy meals.

Starlings will rapidly devastate a vineyard. They are very intelligent and social birds, traveling in massive flocks. Starling scouts in squadrons of ten to forty birds go in all directions looking for those feeding grounds with the sweetest grapes. The scouts report back, then tens of thousands of shiny black fruit-eaters descend into the best vineyard. A single starling can eat a full bunch of grapes in just five minutes. When a starling gets full, almost spitefully, he’ll start peeling grapes and plucking out the crunchy, nutty seeds. If one bird can ravage a cluster in minutes, what will thousands of birds do to a vineyard’s yield?

Starlings aren’t the only birds that plunder vineyards. Finches and linnets are becoming an issue. They are still much less problematic though and are also protected species, so dealings with them need to be especially gentle.

Falcons hunt small birds by nature, zooming in and striking like an air-to-air missile. But the highly-trained falcons almost never injure or eat the enemy. They clear the skies through intimidation. Super-fast and maneuverable, they dive at a flock then bank and rise only to dive again. The starlings, not aware that these falcons don’t have murderous intent, head for a safer buffet. After several days of nerve-wracking fly-bys, the grape-burglars stop coming back. The falcons have established a no-fly zone.

There’s more to pest control falconry than wearing a cool leather gauntlet and watching your birds do their thing. The hours are long and physical. Jim starts at the crack of dawn with three birds and a dog. While his falcons circle, Jim and dog constantly walk the rows, looking for birds in the canopy and flushing them out. Eventually, it gets too hot for falcons, dog and falconer. They head back to the trailer until late afternoon when it’s cooler. Then, both Jim and Kathleen go out. They’ll take two dogs and six birds. Eventually, Jim heads in, leaving Kathleen and her team to take the late shift, working until dark.

565px-Peregrine Falcon 12
Peregrine Falcon. Photo: Ltshears

Jim Tigan uses four types of falcons to handle the various sizes of pests and different terrains. They also vary in their tolerance to heat. Peregrine falcons are astoundingly fast and can weigh up to three pounds. Saker falcons are a desert species renowned for their heat tolerance. Their size is, on average, similar to that of the largest Peregrines. Barbary Falcons, in the Peregrine family, are medium-sized with a very broad range of tolerated temperatures. They are fast but also highly maneuverable. They like high-altitude flying and love a good chase. Whereas the Peregrine and Barbary like to dive from great heights, the Lanner Falcon prefers low-altitude, horizontal pursuits.

The Grolier Encyclopedia tells us that Peregrine Falcons are the fastest living things on earth. In a dive, they can exceed 200 miles per hour.

Of course, most growers use other means to deal with thieving birds. Some cover vines with netting. Others tie shiny mylar strips to them. “Bird cannons” can be fired off periodically, frightening birds away with booming sound. In non-food businesses, such as oil fields, poison is sometimes used. Scarecrows don’t cut it. Strips and nets are practical and cost-effective in a small vineyard but become massively labor intensive and costly over large acreage. And you never know how much mylar is enough.

One year, driving back and forth to the vineyard each day, Jim saw a small boutique vineyard become an attraction to starlings. He’d honk his horn and try to scare them off, but had to get on with his own work. In the end, birds devastated that crop. “The next year when I came back to SLH,” Jim recalls, “there was at least one mylar strip on every single vine. The vineyard was so reflective, air traffic controllers might have had to re-route planes.”

Tactical Avian Predators’ fee works out to around 60 cents-per-acre for each day of work in big vineyards. Due to fixed costs of the business, price-per-acre would much higher for a small plot. “While a bit more expensive than netting or bird cannons, the use of falcons in the vineyard maintains our commitment to the environment and our commitment to a more humane treatment of the starlings. We see Tactical Avian Predators as an integral partner in our Sustainability program.” Bill Leigon explains. “Not only is bird netting a petroleum product, it can trap birds by the neck when they try to eat the grapes. A bird trapped in the netting can easily break its neck.” Tactical Avian Predators is a certified-green wildlife control company and Hahn Family Winery is SIP-certified.

Jim Tigan’s interest in falcons started during what he calls his “senior year of 4th grade,” (made necessary by dyslexia). He discovered My Side of the Mountain a book in which a teenage boy runs away to the Catskills, lives in the wilderness and, after reading up on falconry, captures and trains a peregrine. Jim captured his first falcon while in high school. After graduation, Tigan spent 13 years in the Coast Guard. While with the Coast Guard, he founded the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka, Alaska. When an injury forced his retirement from the service, falconry became his primary focus. Falcons became his business when Pedigree Dog Food asked him to see if his birds could get starlings out of the factory.

Starling-abatement at big vineyards is all-consuming, but it’s seasonal. Companies like Tactical Avian Predators look to work for a variety of businesses with different seasons. For example, Pacific Northwest blueberry farms and Lodi grape growers would likely see peak starling activity at different times than the Santa Lucia Highlands. And not every gig is starling abatement. Tactical Avian Predators also does educational demonstrations. One of their competitors works for the Seattle Seahawks, his trained falcon serving as their mascot.

A study, reported in Science, found a falcon’s visual acuity is 2.67 times better than a human’s. We should train falcons to be referees!

That brings us back to this weekend. Who will falconers Jim and Kathleen Tigan be rooting for? The 49ers! As Reno-residents with ties to wine country, they see San Francisco as the home team.

Colin-KaepernickThey are also hugely enthusiastic fans of 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The run or gun phenom was born in Milwaukee, but his family moved to Turlock when he was four years old. He went to college at the University of Nevada, Reno and was very popular there for both his multi-sport skills and his personality. Reno residents consider him a hometown hero.

If there had been the slightest chance of the Tigan’s pulling for Atlanta due to their falcon affinity, marketers blew that. “Their mascot isn’t even a real falcon,” Kathleen exclaims in disbelief. “They’ve got some guy walking around in a stupid stuffed-bird costume.” So, go Niners!


Freddie Falcons
An embarrassment to falconers.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.


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