Winegrowers Are Recruiting Birds to Their Vineyards

At Domai­ne Bous­quet in Men­do­za, Argen­ti­na, pere­gri­ne fal­cons have been brought in to sca­re away doves that nest in the roof of the winery, as well as gra­pe-eating spa­rrows, says the winery’s agro­no­mist, Fran­co Bastias”. 

A sym­bio­tic rela­tionship bet­ween birds and gra­pe gro­wers is emer­ging, and its impli­ca­tions are vast.

By Kath­leen Willcox 

Sin­ce 1970, bird popu­la­tions in North Ame­ri­ca alo­ne have decli­ned by almost 3 billion, accor­ding to a study con­duc­ted by the Cor­nell Lab of Ornitho­logy. One of the cul­prits of this die-off, scien­tists say, is pes­ti­ci­de. About 1 billion pounds of pes­ti­ci­de is spra­yed in the Uni­ted Sta­tes each year. Beyond their inten­ded effects, the­se poi­sons can con­ta­mi­na­te the water and soil and be toxic to a host of orga­nisms, inclu­ding birds, fish and even humans, accor­ding to the EPA.

Many gra­pe gro­wers are fin­ding that they can dras­ti­cally redu­ce pes­ti­ci­de use — something many regions are wor­king toward, in a broad push toward more sus­tai­na­ble gro­wing prac­ti­ces — by recrui­ting wild win­ged workers.

Birds and far­mers can help each other,” says Matt John­son, pro­fes­sor of wild­li­fe habi­tat eco­logy at Cal Poly Hum­boldt in Arca­ta, Calif., who has led seve­ral stu­dies on the sym­bio­tic rela­tionship bet­ween birds and vine­yards. “Our research has focu­sed on owls, pri­ma­rily, but it has also tou­ched on song­birds like swa­llows and bluebirds.

Becau­se so much natu­ral nes­ting habi­tat has been des­tro­yed by modern agri­cul­tu­re (inclu­ding plan­ting vine­yards), gro­wers are fin­ding that, by invi­ting owls and song­birds into their vine­yards, it not only helps the birds, but it sig­ni­fi­cantly redu­ces popu­la­tions of rodents and insects.”

One of Johnson’s for­mer stu­dents, Xeró­ni­mo Cas­ta­ñe­da, currently the con­ser­va­tion pro­ject mana­ger at Audu­bon Cali­for­nia, notes he’s been con­ten­ding with an influx in requests for infor­ma­tion on birds from vine­yard mana­gers in recent months.

The costs of inputs like fuel, and the cost of labor for mana­ging pes­ti­ci­de pro­grams has increa­sed con­si­de­rably recently,” Cas­ta­ñe­da says. “Peo­ple are star­ting to reali­ze that, by brin­ging in birds, they can essen­tially get free labor — and the hands-off, che­mi­cal-free approach bene­fits everyone.”

Owls + Hawks Ter­mi­na­te Rodents 

Rodents have been wrea­king havoc on farm fields sin­ce the dawn of agri­cul­tu­re. Gra­pe gro­wers are now fin­ding that owls act as more effi­cient and eco-friendly rodent ter­mi­na­tors than pes­ti­ci­des in traps. One family of owls can eat 3,466 rodents per year on ave­ra­ge, accor­ding to Johnson’s research.

In 2007, Ames Mori­son, co-foun­der of Healdsburg’s Med­lock Ames, lear­ned what effec­ti­ve allies owls can be when gro­wing gra­pes organically.

We set up owl boxes, and the poles whe­re the nest boxes are moun­ted have a cross­bar that attracts red-tai­led hawks,” Mori­son explains. “Both of the­se birds feed on gophers and voles, which can dama­ge or kill our vines.”

The pro­gram has been so suc­cess­ful, the team plans to dou­ble its num­ber of owl boxes over the next two years, for a final tally of around 60.

Invi­ting owls and song­birds into the vine­yards sig­ni­fi­cantly redu­ces popu­la­tions of rodents and insects. (Ron Rubin Vineyards)

William Thiersch, assis­tant wine­ma­ker and head of sus­tai­na­bi­lity at Ron Rubin, says the team at its 10-acre esta­te vine­yard in Sebas­to­pol, Calif.,  ins­ta­lled owl boxes in part­nership with the Sono­ma County Wild­li­fe Res­cue pro­gram and SIP Cer­ti­fied.

The four owl boxes we ins­ta­lled in 2016 have been a game chan­ger for our vine­yard mana­ger,” Theirsch says. “He used to spend a lot of time, money and effort set­ting up traps, but the owls take care of our rodents com­ple­tely. Now he can focus tho­se efforts on far­ming the grapes.”

Fal­cons + Eagles Make Great Gra­pe Guards

Some birds are also brought in to act as hea­vies against sma­ller birds that feast on grapes.

At Domai­ne Bous­quet in Men­do­za, Argen­ti­na, pere­gri­ne fal­cons have been brought in to sca­re away doves that nest in the roof of the winery, as well as gra­pe-eating spa­rrows, says the winery’s agro­no­mist, Fran­co Bastias.

We have per­ches for day birds of prey, such as eagles, kites and kes­trels, to tar­get star­lings and other flying ver­te­bra­tes that wreak havoc on gra­pes,” says oeno­lo­gist Luis Duar­te of Alen­te­jo, Portugal’s Her­da­de dos Grous. “By redu­cing the dama­ge cau­sed by star­lings to the gra­pes, the poten­tial for cry­pto­ga­mous disea­ses, such as gray rot, is reduced.”

Recrui­ting win­ged labo­rers can be part of a winery’s push toward balan­ce and sus­tai­na­bi­lity. (Her­da­de de Coelheiros)
At Her­da­de de Coelhei­ros in Alen­te­jo, agri­cul­tu­ral mana­ger João Rapo­sei­ra, says recrui­ting win­ged labo­rers is a part of the winery’s ove­rall push toward balan­ce and sustainability.

Having eagles and fal­cons in the vine­yard crea­tes a dete­rrent to sma­ller birds that can cau­se sig­ni­fi­cant dama­ge to crops,” Rapo­sei­ra says. “From our point of view, any sig­ni­fi­cant dama­ge to fruit and crops cau­sed by birds or insects is indi­ca­ti­ve of an imba­lan­ce. Birds are part of the ecosys­tem. Our goal is to inter­pret the­se sys­tems and enhan­ce their balan­ce and resi­lien­ce through natu­ral means.”

Spray Reduc­tion

Encou­ra­ging natu­ral resi­lien­ce, and redu­cing the need to spray pes­ti­ci­des, is at the root of many vine­yard bird programs.

In Italy, Trentodoc’s Endriz­zi vine­yards are far­med orga­ni­cally and “insect-eating birds are asked for help,” says CEO Chris­ti­ne Endri­ci. “Our 20 nest boxes per hec­ta­re make the vine­yards a sought-after habi­tat for chic­ka­dees, reds­tarts, spa­rrows, robins, hoo­poes and bats, who say ‘thanks’ for the hos­pi­ta­lity by depen­dably com­ba­ting pests like gra­pe­vi­ne moths and the leafhopper.”

Other pro­du­cers, inclu­ding Ken Forres­ter Wines in Raithyby, South Afri­ca, also find that having a ran­ge of birds hel­ping out in the vines lets them seriously cur­tail spray programs.

Chickens eat fly maggots (Pexels)
Chic­kens eat fly mag­gots (Pexels)

We use ducks to con­trol snails and insects, and we have rap­tor poles and owl boxes for rodents,” says wine­ma­ker Ken Forres­ter. “We also use chic­kens to com­bat fly mag­gots.” In addi­tion to  the “wor­king birds,” the pro­perty is also homes to nati­ve wild­li­fe, including“dogs, gee­se, jac­kals, otters, por­cu­pi­ne, grys­bok­ke, dui­kers, owls and other assor­ted birds.”

The “more is bet­ter” phi­lo­sophy rules the day at Domai­ne Bous­quet as well. “We encou­ra­ge all fau­na by saving rain­wa­ter and dis­per­sing it in the vine­yard as wate­ring sta­tions for foxes, wild rab­bits and birds,” Bas­tias says. “We now have a healthy popu­la­tion of all kinds of flo­ra and fau­na, inclu­ding endan­ge­red [spe­cies] that can bring unex­pec­ted benefits.”

Seve­ral ducks, Bas­tias explains, have made the winery pond their home, and “Their pre­sen­ce balan­ces the vege­ta­ti­ve growth in the pond, and keeps it in balance.”

We’ve seen the unin­ten­ded, lar­gely nega­ti­ve, con­se­quen­ces of indus­trial far­ming and mono­cul­tu­re in vine­yards. It’s refreshing to see more and more gro­wers enjo­ying the flip side.


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