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Fierce Predators Could Be Northwest's Most Effective Fruit Protectors

Over orchards and vineyards across the Northwest, European starlings are eating fruit to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. And when the traditional methods of keeping the birds away -- like scarecrows, pyrotechnics and netting -- don’t work, it’s time to call Falcon Force.

It’s a company run by Vahé Alaverdian that offers raptors for hire. Alaverdian has been a lifelong falconer and started doing abatement work professionally in 2009.

One of the raptors Alaverdian works with is a fierce, Peregrine falcon called Shaman. Birds like starlings and finches -- the species that love to eat ripening fruit -- are prey for Peregrine falcons like Shaman. So as long as he flies here, other birds won’t.

Flying security guards

And that makes Mark Roy happy. He’s a fourth-generation fruit grower and a member of the Washington State Fruit Commission.

“I would say we’re saving about $1,000 a day from fruit that’s not damaged,” Roy said.

Roy grows cherries and apples just outside Moxee, a small town in Washington’s Yakima Valley. He said an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed he was losing up to 8 percent of his apples to hungry birds.

“It pays to come and to scare the birds away,” Roy said.

So he called Alaverdian.

“Bird abatement is fairly new, meaning like the last two decades it has really picked up,” Alaverdian said. “Ecologically and sustainability speaking, it’s becoming more and more popular popular because of how green it is and how clean it is.”

“We’re not terminators,” Alaverdian added. “Our job description would be more like security guards.”

Starling-proof vineyards?

But Falcon Force isn’t cheap. Shaman and the other raptors Alaverdian works with bring in up to $75 per hour. During the height of the growing season, they’ll work fields for 12 to 14 hours, so a single contract could bring in $70,000.

But Alaverdian said his birds likely save growers even more than what Mark Roy estimates.

“Let’s say we’re doing wine grapes,” Alaverdian said. “It takes $400 an acre to buy netting -- traditionally they net the wine grapes -- pay for labor to put it on and peel it off before harvest, right?”

Many wineries exceed 1,000 acres, so netting can cost up to $400,000 per year. And it’s still not starling-proof.

“Your netting is stretched over the fruit, so it gives starlings something to bind into, while they eat the fruit right through the netting,” Alaverdian said. “So, they still take as much as 30 percent damage. Whereas with us, we can bring that down to 5 percent to 7 percent damage.”

Better than drones

A few years ago people thought they had a new, modern answer to the starling problem: drones.

“People said ‘oh, we’re going to put you out of business. We’ve got drones, we’re going to program these drones and then we’ll fly them over blueberries,’” Alaverdian recalled. “And then what?”

Like scarecrows and shotguns, they didn’t seem to actually scare birds away.

“It’s just not something they’re genetically programmed to avoid,” Alaverdian said. “It’s good for 48 hours and then you need another tool.”

But for Alaverdian, his tool is the kind with talons.