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Falcons, trainers protect Washington fruit harvests

MOXEE, Wash. – Sitting Bull, the bird, launched just after dawn.

Vahe Alaverdian tugged at a knot, releasing the peregrine falcon’s leather hood, and freed the predator to soar above a field of blueberries. In seconds, the bird plunged earthward and a flock of European starlings – a restless murmuration eyeing the ripe fruit from an empty hops field – exploded into the air, racing away to avoid the raptor.

“Look at ’em take off,” said Alaverdian’s colleague, Bobby Baldwin. “They’re mentally defeated. They just got their wake-up call.”

Sitting Bull’s workday had begun.

Before Northwesterners feast on blueberries, cherries and other abundant summer sweets, orchardists must keep at bay the airborne fruit-munching bandits – robins, finches, starlings and other problem birds. And with the market power of organic crops growing and with fewer safe pesticide options, some farmers are turning to an alternative: raptors.

Alaverdian and his California company, Falcon Force, have been coming to Yakima each summer for several years, using trained falcons to patrol hundreds of acres at Roy Farms. Their mission: Drive away birds that pick apart summer fruit crops.

“It’s a very sustainable way to try to live with nature and protect the harvest,” said Mark Roy, of Roy Farms, who manages the fruit crops. “Plus we didn’t have too many good options.”

Each year as spring ends in Yakima, a few miles away, the nuisance birds make their way over a nearby ridgeline, looking for their plump, juicy free lunch. In the past, Roy Farms dusted the fruit with federally approved chemicals, but the family feared it altered the taste, Roy said. So they started examining their choices.

Mesh netting can cost hundreds of dollars an acre and still not keep all the fruit safe. Fake kestrel nest boxes and scarecrow-like red-tailed-hawk silhouettes have to constantly be moved around, as do the loud propane cannons used by some competitors. Some companies sell audiotapes of distressed bird calls to be played through loudspeakers, while some farmers send their kids screaming down rows of fruit in noisy four-wheel ATVs.

But Roy said his family farm finally found success when it settled on just the right group of licensed falconers – Alaverdian and his crew. And Falcon Force was cheaper than some of the other options he has explored.

The Falcon Force team has worked California’s wine grapes and keeps seabirds away from marine parks. In Moxee, they police the fields in pickups, with gyrfalcon-peregrine hybrids, peregrines and Aplomados in the back seat. When the crew finds where the morning’s fruit thieves are congregating, team members choose the right predators for the job and set them free.

For starlings gathered on power lines or treetops, a speedy high-flying peregrine like Sitting Bull – capable of clocking 200 mph or more during a dive, called “stooping” – provides a fright.

“It’s psychologically devastating,” Alaverdian said.

For finches already pecking holes in the fruit plant by plant to see which berries are sweetest, sometimes it’s best to let loose an Aplomado.

“They’re forest birds,” said Baldwin. “Finches like to hide deep in the row, but an Aplomado will fly really low and close.”

Yet none of this is as simple as it sounds. Among the 7,000 or so falconers in the country, only a small portion work in “bird abatement.”

“It’s fascinating,” Roy said. “But there’s a real science to it. That’s why we like Vahe – he’s got this knowledge and passion and an ability to read birds and understand their behavior.”

Alaverdian said, “You could be a falconer all your life, but that doesn’t mean you can do this. This is not falconry. Out here, you have to get the job done.”

How they work

Alaverdian, 40, arrives each day about 5:30 a.m., carrying little more than his birds.

“I travel light,” he said with a laugh. That’s because on this morning he’s scouring a clipboard that tracks how much each falcon weighs.

“Like an Olympic boxer or wrestler, this is all about weight management,” Alaverdian said. “They perform best at their optimum weight; otherwise they can be kind of sluggish.”

Alaverdian started raising animals as a kid in Armenia, when he and his brothers kept chameleons and monkeys. He once bought a kestrel from a juice vendor, and at one time drove his parents crazy when he kept 14 budgies flying free in his room.

He became a photographer and a master falconer on the side, participating in frequent competitions for fun. But when the Internet and the rise of digital photography helped drive his freelance rates into the basement, he decided to make a living with his first love. He started Falcon Force in 2009.

Each bird wears a tiny backpack affixed with a microtransmitter. Another radio device is attached to one leg.

“In the event it should decide to fly off to Seattle, we can track it,” he said.

Once he puts one of his birds in the air, Alaverdian helps control its behavior using a homemade lure – a tennis ball stuffed with pigeon wings attached to a rope. He shouts and swings this attractant, which draws the bird back to him in a stoop, which triggers a fear response in smaller birds. Then Alaverdian rewards the raptor’s efforts with a treat: a bloody hunk of pigeon flesh yanked from a bag in his pocket.

He discourages his birds from actually catching any of their fruit-stealing prey, because once a falcon or hawk nabs a small bird, it will sit on a post and eat for an hour rather than keep working. It still happens sometimes.

Not trouble-free

But for this business to be successful, the crops have to be patrolled constantly, “like an army that just keeps creeping in closer,” Falcon Force employee Bobby Baldwin said.

Baldwin, a falconer who has worked as a bouncer and a security guard, is spending his first season with Alaverdian.

“This is basically like security work,” he said. “It’s loss-prevention and bouncing – kicking trouble to the curb.”

But trouble still sometimes finds them.

Earlier this month, Alaverdian said, a neighbor shot one of the birds working Roy Farms, fearing it might attack his chickens.

Nuisance birds like to hang out on power lines and near transformers. But if a falcon’s radio tag touches the wrong wires, it can be killed.

On windy days, fast-moving peregrines have even been known to misjudge distances. Alaverdian said he’s been nailed more than once in the rib cage by his own bird as it swooped in trying to grab his lure.

Alaverdian said the work is hard and seasonal and the days are long – sometimes he’ll put in 14 hours or more. But his business is growing and he can no longer imagine doing anything else.

“Look around you,” he said, pointing out the green fields and rolling hills. “What could be better than this?”