Howard Ward worked in a body shop 43 years before deciding to change careers — he became a falconer.
Ward, owner of Sharp Talon Bird Abatement, in Grants Pass, Ore., wishes he’d made the switch years ago. He now travels the West Coast to chase starlings from berry and grape fields, such as the 70 acres of blueberries belonging to GNC Farms near Salem, Ore.
“It’s bad; we’ve tried a lot of things to keep the starlings out of our blueberries and they don’t work very well,” Brian Martin of GNC Farms said. “We’ve tried propane cannons and screechers; lasers worked for a little while then when we got really high pressure they didn’t work. Natural predators, they don’t get used to.”
Ward is at the field flying his birds at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week throughout harvest — about 35 days total. Each falcon can fly up to an hour three times a day.
“Once I get the starlings completely run out of here they come back in a few days if you don’t have a falcon flying,” Ward said. Once released, the falcon loops through the crop, following Ward as he walks from one end of the property to the other.
“When you put a bird of prey in the air the starlings know that’s not good,” Ward said. “You’ve got a bird of prey in the air and the starlings just go to the next farm.”
Becoming a falconer takes years. After finding a sponsor, applicants must pass a falconry test, procure the appropriate state and federal licenses and catch a wild red-tailed hawk or kestrel falcon.
Though wild birds may not be used to make money, this first bird must be maintained for at least a year before a two-year apprenticeship begins. After that, the falconer is a “general” for five years before becoming a master falconer. Ward has been at it for seven years and will be a master falconer at the end of this year.
A bird fresh from the breeder costs anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500, and from a falcon’s first step from perch to glove to free flying on command, training takes about three months.
“They don’t always come back,” Ward said. “We’ve had to chase them down sometimes, but they wear radio and GPS trackers.
“I don’t recommend anybody flying birds without a GPS tracker,” Ward said. “They’re spendy but your birds are worth a lot. I know exactly where the bird is; if he gets to a pole in another town I can track right to him.”
Besides starlings at farms, dairies and airports, falcons drive seagulls from dump sites and pigeons from downtown Portland and other areas, including Sea World.
There are many methods berry and grape farmers employ, but Ward says a bird of prey is hard to outsmart.
“Anything man-made is only going to last for a while until they get used to it,” Ward said. “You can have noisemakers all over the place but the only thing that really works is the real deal.”
At home, falcons require their own room and weathering area. It’s important to have an avian vet on hand and fly the birds year round so they get the exercise they need to stay healthy.
Ward’s birds range in weight from a little over 1 pound to nearly 2 pounds. It’s important to regulate each bird’s weight and food — frozen-purchased quail — is precisely measured.
“If they’re too heavy they’ll just go sit somewhere,” Ward said. “If they’re too light they don’t have enough energy to fly.
“It’s such a pleasure to be out here working with the birds; I wish I’d done it years ago,” Ward said. “It’s the relationship that you build with each bird; each one is totally different.”