Integrated Pest Management Takes to the Sky as Falconers Partner with Nature to Protect Ripe Fruit from Destructive Bird Pests during Harvest Season
Odds of ten thousand to one might sound intimidating, but falconer Getty Pollard of B-1RD LLC isn’t fazed. He knows what his falcons are capable of.
Posing threats of such great numbers to Homegrown blueberry crops are nuisance birds, specifically, European starlings, which travel in flocks of thousands. When one group of birds finds a food source, it spreads the word to surrounding flocks, and if nothing is done to deter the birds, an entire blueberry crop could be lost to a flock of starlings within a matter of hours. That’s where birds of prey factor in.
“What’s really fun is being able to take a one or two pound falcon and protect a huge area. It really is kind of amazing,” Getty observed.
Partnering with the natural predatory relationship of falcons and starlings is a method of integrated pest management that fits organic agriculture. Getty calls it “a smart use of tools.”
“We’re working with a natural relationship and doing it in a way that’s to our advantage and doesn’t cause harm,” Getty said. “Falcons are flying in the wild all over the place and having similar effects on birds. To use them to protect a crop from starlings is like fighting fire with fire.”
In the fields, Getty’s team of falcon handlers finds the flight patterns of nuisance birds at the farm and then lets the falcons make an appearance in the air. The falcon’s presence is enough to deter the birds, putting a stop to small starling problems before they escalate into a big problem.
Teams of falcons are in the air, one at time, for eight to twelve hours a day, six days a week for two months, or as long as the fruit is ripe and vulnerable.
“We’re doing a massive negative conditioning program on starlings, making a high-pressure, high-predatory presence in an area,” Getty explained.
Other organic methods for deterring starlings such as covering crops with nets and blasting propane cannons are effective on a smaller scale, but they’re expensive, disruptive, and fall short of what steady falcon pressure can do in a large area.
“Falcons are really quiet and are able to do the job effectively,” said Eric Pond, who oversees farming operations for Homegrown blueberry farms in Oregon, noting that a falcon can do the work that would otherwise require three to four people.
Eric has been using this form of integrated pest management to protect crops on the farms he oversees since 2009 and has found it to be the most effective way to keep Homegrown blueberries from falling prey to nuisance birds.