By Elizabeth Ashby

For years, air cannons, owl boxes and other noisy devices have been used to scare away pests—especially birds—wreaking havoc on a grower’s crop. But as urban sprawl continues, neighborhoods are popping up around agricultural land, and the use of such raucous tools is being frowned upon.

A more environmentally friendly and much less noisy alternative just might offer some help.

Falconry is the oldest, most regulated field sport in the world, says Neil Ottoway, president of the Florida Hawking Fraternity, Davenport, adding that falconry was first developed in Asia nearly 3,000 years ago. Today, modern falconers hunt and fly their birds for demonstration, education and film, says Tim Christian, a master falconer based in Venice. The falcons also are used commercially to drive depredation birds away in places such as airports, landfills, beaches, schools and golf courses.

The use of falcons in agriculture is not widespread, but the increasing desire to be eco-friendly and polite to neighbors is causing some growers to take interest in the birds.

A falcon’s place on the farm

Christian says falcons are useful for scaring away flocks of depredation birds, such as robins and crows, who like to feed on small, delicate crops such as grapes, cherries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. The falconer flies the falcons over the crop or designated area of land often times in the morning and evening when depredation birds tend to feed. The depredation birds are fearful of the falcon and fly away.

“Normally, just the appearance is enough to drive the depredation birds away from the site,” Ottoway says. “They see the silhouette of a falcon or hawk, and it is ingrained in them that they fly away. You have thousands of years of biology working for you.”

Falcons can fly all day if the weather is good, but they can get overheated just like humans, making the middle of the day in extremely hot locations uninviting for falcons. They also don’t fly well in the rain or snow.

Internet searches reveal several companies who specialize in falconry.

California grape growers have used falconry for quite some time to keep birds out of the vineyards. Air-Superiority Falconry Services, Ramona, Calif., has been in business since 1995 using falconry—also known as the sport of kings—to keep depredation birds at bay. Christian says grape growers typically use falconry for six to eight weeks during harvest.

He says cherry growers also look to falconry for bird abatement during the three to four weeks of cherry harvest. He says one cherry company told him it was losing 30 percent of its crop to birds before using falconry. “When they started using falcons, they said their losses were negligible,” Christian says. “Falcons won’t get it to zero, but it probably will cut losses 50 percent to 75 percent.”

Christian also has seen interest from apple growers, particularly growers of the newer honeycrisp variety. And in the spring of 2007, he spoke to a group of blueberry growers in Florida who were considering falconry.

So you want to hire a falconer...

If you grow any number of delicate crops that often become lunch or dinner for birds seeking sweet treats, you might want to give a falconer a call. But how? And what do you need to know about using falcons?

First you need to find someone who has birds and is trained in using them for bird abatement. Ottoway says there are 342 active falconer permits in Florida, but that doesn’t mean they all are actively flying birds or have valid permits any longer. However, there are 64 active members in the Florida Hawking Fraternity, which also is affiliated with the North American Falconers Association. A person can be a general falconer or a master falconer. To become a master falconer, one has to obtain a sponsor, be an apprentice for two years, and then spend five years as a general falconer. Christian has been a master falconer for 10 years, and his sponsor has been working with falcons since the 1960s.

Growers can contract with an individual falconer or with a company who places falconers on the job. Growers also could contact the Florida Hawking Fraternity to be put in touch with falconers who can work in agriculture.

Christian says most falconers who would work in the industry have their own birds. In December when he was working in New York for a company who handles commercial accounts, he was using nine falcons, some of which he owned. To protect fruit crops, he says it usually requires flying the birds many times for a short period of time. One falcon can cover anywhere from 20 to 100 acres but it depends on how many times the birds need to fly before a falconer can determine how many falcons he will need for the job.

“I had one bird capable of flying 20 times a day so I didn’t need very much backup for him. Most birds only fly two to three times a day though. If you need 20 flights a day to keep the birds away, you will need more. Most people who do this have five to 10 birds to do a contract,” Christian says.

Common practice is to contact a falconer and contract for the coming year. Usually growers know they will have a problem. The falconer typically arrives on the farm a week or so before he is needed so he can get the falcons acclimated to the area and learn their boundaries.

Ottoway says using falcons is better for the environment because growers aren’t using poison or other unnatural methods for deterring depredation birds. The falcons also aren’t nearly as noisy as owl boxes or other mechanical methods for scaring away birds. But there is a cost involved, and Christian says it is cheaper and more effective.

Each contract is different depending on the circumstances, but growers generally are charged a fee for the falconer. Then growers often are responsible for providing room and board for the falconer. Beyond that, falconers may charge for gasoline and food. Falconers also have to provide shelter for the falcons. This usually entails building a mews—a pen or cage for the falcon—on the farm near the crop they will be protecting.

“I can give you a high dollar and a low dollar figure. Generally it can run up to a $1,000 a day. But when you look at the return though, it could be beneficial. It is 100 times more effective than mechanical devices,” Christian says. “Once you’ve seen it done, you are convinced that this is effective.”