Falcons protect Oregon blueberry farms

Starlings beware, falcons patrol Oregon blueberry fields
— A handful of larger growing operations turn to a bird of prey to protect the crop
By Oregon Department of Agriculture

Some of Oregon’s larger blueberry growers this summer have enlisted a winged warrior in the battle against starlings. The use of falcons to ward off a fellow bird species that can cause thousands of dollars in crop damage is showing very positive results and may be a growing trend among Willamette Valley blueberry farms.

“People forget that starlings are an invasive species and are more than just a nuisance pest to Oregon agriculture,” says Oregon Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Lisa Hanson. “Growers are trying to find effective tools to protect their crops from bird damage. It is encouraging to see that the use of trained falcons is working while providing an environmentally-friendly method of controlling pest pressure from starlings.”

A decade ago, Gingerich Farms of Canby was dealing with a huge population of starlings that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud.

“We have a couple of towers on the farm and as soon as we would chase the birds out of the blueberries, they would flock to the towers and watch us,” says owner Verne Gingerich. “As soon as we departed, they were back in the fields. The number of starlings was astronomical.”

That’s when Gingerich met Getty Pollard and his trained falcons. Pollard’s Oregon-based company, B-1RD, had already been providing service to wine grape growers in California by having his falcons fly over and around the fields to keep starlings and other birds from eating the crops. The starlings at Gingerich Farms were smart enough to know that the falcon was a threat. Their response was to leave the immediate area.

“With the falcons on site, the starlings no longer have security in our towers,” says Gingerich. “It has been a real efficient way of patrolling birds. This year, we’ve seen starlings around the perimeter. There is no doubt that if the falcons weren’t on our farm, the starlings would be back in our fields.”

Oregon’s blueberry production is at an all-time high. The value of the crop has never been greater. There is plenty of incentive to protect the berries in the field from unintended consumers. Traditional tools such as propane cannons and other noise makers, mylar tape, and balloons may work on smaller operations some of the time, but can’t match the efficacy of the falcon.

“Starlings are actually intelligent,” says Pollard. “They basically look at any of those other techniques and realize it’s not trying to kill them, it’s not chasing them, it hasn’t caught them, therefore they will ignore it just like they ignore a loud car driving by.”

Pollard uses some of the tools and techniques employed in traditional falconry, but has designed a complex system to effectively keep starlings away, not to hunt and kill.

“We are using trained falcons to basically harass and chase starlings in a given area at a very intense level for many hours of the day and for many weeks on end in order to create a predatory presence that is so intense that starlings don’t want to be in the area,” says Pollard. “We don’t even want starlings looking at the blueberry fields let alone flying over them.”

It’s not just the threat of starlings eating the crop that concerns growers. They also pose a food safety risk simply by flying over the fields and occasionally defecating on the berries. The feet of starlings can also spread plant diseases.

For the large operations such as Gingerich Farms, Pollard uses one falcon to patrol the area for up to eight straight hours, then rest that falcon and use another one, repeating the process daily for a couple of months straight. It takes that kind of intensity to provide the desired results, especially when patrolling a large area.

“We fly our falcons from ATVs and train them so they are used to the vehicles,” says Pollard. “We wear uniforms and look the same every day so our falcons recognize us as their only handler and don’t fly down on someone else traveling in an ATV. We spend three months training and conditioning these falcons prior to working blueberry fields for two months. After the season, we go south to California to protect wine grapes.”

Blueberry growers are beginning to band together to contract falcon services. Starlings will simply leave the fields that are patrolled for nearby fields that aren’t.

“I don’t want to treat a field and have a neighbor that has done nothing for control,” says Pollard. “I try to find all the blueberry fields in a given area and put everyone under the contract to keep starlings out of everybody’s fields.”

Blueberry grower Eric Pond of Jefferson is in his third year of using Pollard and his falcons to patrol several hundred acres of crops.

“It’s very simple, we don’t have any damage to our fruit from starlings anymore,” says Pond. “Before, we were using cannons and screechers. All of that was a pain that required a lot more people to do the job. With the falcons, it’s a clean and easy way to go. It fits our sustainability program too, as we try to work better with the environment. Falcons offer an effective way to deal with starlings. We don’t have to mess with it, we don’t have to think about it. It’s an expensive service, but I wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t pay for itself.”

Gingerich is mindful of being a good neighbor, too. The choice of using falcons to keep the starlings away literally keeps the peace.

“I’m located in a fairly heavy metro-pressured area,” he says. “We have a lot of small farms and people who work in Portland but like to live out here. If we use shotguns or cannons, they see that as intrusive. With a falcon, it’s effective but not intrusive.”

So the next time you are near a blueberry field, look up. You might see a fast moving bird of prey who is simply doing its job of patrolling the skies and protecting an important Oregon berry crop.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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