Falconer keeps pest birds at bay

Sean Ellis/Capital Press Master falconer Brad Felger poses with a hybrid falcon Feb. 25 in Boise during the Idaho Wine Commission's annual meeting. Felger uses raptors to scare pest birds such as starlings away from grapes and other fruit crops.

BOISE — Brad Felger’s life-long love of falconry has turned into a full-time job that also benefits farmers whose fruit crops can be devastated by pest birds such as starlings and sparrows.

Felger, 56, began testing the effectiveness of using raptors — hawks or falcons — to scare away pest birds from vineyards and fruit orchards during the 1980s and 1990s.

While continuing his job as a farrier, he flirted with the idea of turning his falconry passion into a full-time job. While taking on part-time bird-abatement jobs for several years, he put the money away and used it to grow his falconry business.

In 2002, he left the horseshoeing business and founded Airstrike Bird Control, which focuses on agriculture but also offers its services to landfills and resorts.

The company provides bird-abatement services for a variety of fruit crops, particularly blueberries, grapes and cherries.

That he can now make a living doing something he has loved since age 10 is a plus, said Felger, who lives near Mount Vernon, Wash.

“Falconry is not just a living. It’s a passion and it’s been a driving force in my life for 46 years,” Felger said while visiting Idaho in late February during the Idaho Wine Commission’s annual meeting.

While he was already experimenting with using raptors to scare birds away from vineyards, Felger got a break while he was performing a bird demonstration during a sustainable agriculture conference in Central California in the late 1990s.

When a huge hidden flock of pest birds promptly rose up and left a vineyard, people took notice, and calls for work followed from vineyard managers.

The company has customers in Washington, Oregon and California and is exploring Idaho.

Idaho winemaker and vineyard owner Ron Bitner said the economics of using raptors to control pest birds in Idaho could make sense for some vineyards, depending on how big their bird problem is.

“It’s a real problem,” he said of starlings and other pest birds. “They can be terrible. I know some vineyards around here that have been wiped out by them in the past. I would think they would want to look into that.”

While starlings and other pest birds might adapt to the sound of noisemakers, visual deterrents or shotgun blasts, they are terrified of raptors and never lose that fear, Felger said.

“There’s a predator-prey relationship in nature that is extremely deep-rooted,” he said. “We’re using nature against nature for a positive thing.”

“Anybody in the agriculture industry ... who has used a falcon to manage a bird problem will tell you it is by far the most effective and efficient solution,” said falconer Kort Clayton, an independent contractor who works in partnership with Felger.

Felger said the economics of using a falconer to protect crops starts to make sense in the 100- to 150-acre range, but some smaller acreages can pencil out if smaller, neighboring vineyards split the cost.

Brad Felger

Founder: Airstrike Bird Control

Occupation: Master falconer, provides bird-abatement services for agriculture

Age: 56

Born: Los Angeles

Home: Mount Vernon, Wash.

Wife: Sue

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