SCOTT SIMON, host:
It's harvest time for California's wine industry. And boy, starlings know it. Grape-loving birds can eat their way through a vineyard pretty quickly. And over the years, wine growers have tried a number of methods to scare the birds away. One strategy that's gaining increasing popularity is the ancient art of falconry.
Gloria Hillard brings us this falcon story from the vineyards of California's central coast.
GLORIA HILLARD: It's early morning in the Camatta Hills Vineyard, and falconer Tom Savory and his crew are on the job.
Mr. TOM SAVORY (Falconer): The birds, the dog and myself, we are a team...
HILLARD: The small camper truck rolls slowly over the dusty dirt road. Sadie, his dog, sits upfront. And behind us, sitting calmly on their own perches, are five falcons.
Mr. SAVORY: And so, we'll get out now and I'll introduce you to the falcons.
HILLARD: It's the falcons' job to scare off the starlings in this vineyard. Only one bird will fly at a time. First up is Fonzie, a peregrine falcon. Savory clock the birds at 150 miles an hour. Fonzie will patrol these 640 acres in a very short time.
(Soundbite of bird squawking)
HILLARD: The bird knows he'll be in the air soon. His talons grab the falconer's worn leather glove. He adjusts his wings and golden eyes scan the surroundings.
Mr. SAVORY: Just give him a chance to get his bearings a little bit. If he doesn't take off, I'm going to cast him off in a second. There he goes.
HILLARD: The bird circles and then lifts upward. A falcon can spot starlings from a half-mile away. When starlings see the bird of prey in the sky, they're gone. Savory's falcons have been on the job here a few days now, and the larger flocks of starlings have disappeared. Wine grower Hillary Graves says that's a testament to the effectiveness of the falcons.
Ms. HILLARY GRAVES (Wine Grower): Here is a bird that basically is doing what it would do in nature anyways, but for our benefit.
HILLARD: To scare away starlings, winegrowers have used everything from shotguns and loud noises to covering the individual rows of grapes with netting. Graves found netting too costly, and before hiring a falconer, she tried propane cannons. Well, the neighbors didn't like that at all, and the smart, grape-loving starlings…
Ms. GRAVES: They would hear the sound. There's like a (sound made) kind of a sound before the zon(ph)goes off of the propane filling up. They would hear that sound and fly away and then after the gun went off, they would come right back.
HILLARD: Cost and sustainability are what's driving some prominent vineyards to use falconers for bird abatement — including E.&J. Gallo, one of the largest wine producers in the state. But it's not an easy job. It takes five years to become a master falconer, including a two-year apprenticeship. Tom Savory.
Mr. SAVORY: As much as some people try, a lot of people don't make it. You have to be born with it.
HILLARD: Savory's falcon is now a dot in the sky, along with a red-tailed hawk. Savory needs to call him in.
Mr. SAVORY: He's telling the red tail this is my territory.
HILLARD: He's swinging a lure — a tennis ball with pigeon feathers — over his head. The bird is now out of our sight, but the falcon can still see and hear Savory — and he knows his whistle.
(Soundbite of whistle)
Mr. SAVORY: They are generally a one-person animal.
HILLARD: On the horizon, the falcons come into view. If you listen carefully, you'll hear what it's like to be buzzed by a fast-moving falcon.
Mr. SAVORY: Here he comes.
(Soundbite of falcom)
HILLARD: The bird alights on Savory's shoulder.
(Soundbite of bird squawking)
HILLARD: His reward: raw quail meat, which Savory feeds to the bird by hand.
Over his past 40 years as a falconer, Savory has developed a special relationship with the birds.
Mr. SAVORY: Flying the falcons, I feel that I am the observer of something that is very grand.
HILLARD: The sun is now directly overhead. Savory will return in the late afternoon when it's cooler for his birds to fly. And so it goes, every day — until the final harvest.
For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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