Julie Johnson, who owns and operates Tres Sabores on the westernmost edge of Napa Valley, has been welcoming barn owls since 1987. She is one of several winemakers quick to praise birds’ inherent ability to protect and sustain the land.
Once they’ve ripened for harvest, vineyard grapes are quite tasty, attracting peckish birds and other animals such as voles or rabbits. Many vineyards keep these intruders at bay through the dedicated, instinctual service of owls, falcons, bluebirds and more.
Some grape growers, including those who cultivate fruit for organic wines, eschew pesticides and man-made pest control methods. Bird cannons, intended to scare away grape-nibbling birds, simply don’t work, says Chris Kajani, winemaker and general manager of Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros. She’s not a fan of Mylar streamers or fake predator birds, either.
Kajani is, however, immensely grateful for the work of Bouchaine’s falcons. Conditioned, trained and managed by Rebecca Rosen of Authentic Abatement, these birds of prey adeptly control the area’s problematic pest population.
Bouchaine’s 87 planted acres lie beneath telephone wires—a prime perching spot for starlings. “The birds sit on those lines and then fly down and have a tasty snack on our grapes all day long,” says Kajani. For the past several years, their ambitions have been largely thwarted as E.B., another of Rosen’s falcons, swoops menacingly overhead.
E.B., whom Rosen calls the “employee of the month,” isn’t looking to kill or do real harm to the grape-obsessed starlings. Rather, he acts as a deterrent, one who knows his work will be rewarded with frozen birds his handler has waiting for him. Though the training never ends, Rosen notes that “training an animal to do something that it naturally wants to do is so much easier.”
Falcons’ natural inclination to act as aggressor to smaller birds comes in handy at vineyards who don’t have a falconer on payroll. At Chateau Grand Traverse in Traverse City, Michigan, kestrels, which are North America’s littlest falcons, “keep damage to our grapes caused by flocks of birds, mostly starlings, at a minimum,” says Jay Budd, assistant vineyard manager.
Though the kestrels are encouraged to nest near the vineyard’s borders via nesting boxes the winery maintains, Budd says, “they are wild birds and we exert no control over them.”
Likewise, a pest management team comprised of bush hawks at New Zealand’s Lawson Dry Hills, help protect the grapes by keeping the smaller songbirds away from the fruit as it ripens, says Belinda Jackson, the winery’s marketing manager. New Zealand’s native falcons offer “great protection, especially for the Pinot Noir grapes,” she says.
Birds aren’t a massive problem for Lawson Dry Hills though, so they can mostly get away with the animals coming and going “as they please,” says Jackson.
Bouchaine’s bird population is more problematic. Kajani estimates since bringing Rosen and her falcons in over five years ago, Bouchaine’s bird damage has decreased significantly, “instead of being 50%, maybe it’s 10%,” she says.
Indeed, the need to enlist a falconer and the steady service they provide depends on the individual vineyard. “How effective [falconry] is depends on how much bird pressure you have,” says Rosen. Not every winemaker can make a case for the often-costly practice of hiring a falconer. And not every vineyard needs to.
Johnson pays for her owl boxes, which cost a couple hundred dollars, and nonprofits help with the necessary maintenance. She says the owl boxes must be enticing, have good aeration, and be multi-chambered and properly oriented on the vineyard. “If you put out a barn owl box, they will come,” she says.”Put out a blue bird box, they will come.”
Tom Gamble, of Gamble Family Vineyards in Napa Valley, is another proponent of building habitats that essentially help to preserve the land. Gamble says the estate has bird boxes supplementing all the riverine and upland trees on its property. “We cannot build them fast enough,” he adds.
Gamble credits the kestrels that linger in the vineyard as not only eating insects but also with catching voles and mice. Larger raptors, including the red tail, red shoulder, cooper and sharp shin hawk, go after small rodents and grape-munching rabbits. The shift change occurs after dusk when Gamble says the bats join forces with owls.
This crew makes a formidable opponent to any unwanted species invading the vineyard at any time. The birds, bats, and owls “make the job of surviving as a rabbit or a rodent a stressful occupation, 24 hours a day,” says Gamble.
Last Updated: May 8, 2023