It's harvest time in the Okanagan Valley, and the vineyards are alive with the sound of gunfire.
From dawn to dusk, hired patrols roar through the grape fields on ATVs,firing shotguns and special pistols loaded with noise-making projectiles. Propane canons, stationed among rows of leafy vines, explode with deafening booms every few hours.
It sounds like a war zone - and that's exactly what it is.
Vineyard enemy No. 1 is the European starling, a non-native bird that travels in flocks of thousands. During harvest, they descend in doomsday-like clouds to feast on the fast-ripening grapes that are just now reaching their full sugar potential for making wine.
If not kept in check, the scavengers can devour several acres of crops in hours. According to the British Columbia Grapegrowers Association, starlings cause about $3-million in damage each year and destroy about 3 to 5 per cent of the province's wine crops.
In their never-ending battle with the birds, vineyard managers have tried every trick in the book.
The arsenal includes gun-toting bird chasers, propane bangers, screamers, reflective windmills, robotic scarecrows - with limited success.
"They're very clever birds," Oliver grape grower Dick Cleave says. "I've seen them sitting on cannons while they were going off. And they know exactly how far the pellet spray reaches. If we take the chasers out of the fields, they're back in an hour. Nothing works for a very long time."
But recently, some growers have begun experimenting with a new weapon - or rather, a centuries-old one: falconry.
"Falcons are the best way to control the starlings because they're natural predators," says Erich Jaster, vineyard foreman at Le Vieux Pin, a boutique winery in the South Okanagan now on its fourth vintage.
In Le Vieux Pin's first year, vineyard manager Harold Gaudy tried using cannons, but says the noise pollution weakened the nearby plants.
Mr. Gaudy now uses netting to prevent the birds from pecking, but it's expensive (about $600 an acre), labour-intensive and not always feasible for larger vineyards. The nets have to be replaced every five years. And Mr. Gaudy is still losing about five tons of fruit each season.
"We're hoping that maybe with the falcons we won't have to use them next year," he says.
The ancient sport of using raptors to hunt game has a long tradition in the Middle and Far East. Today in North America, trained birds of prey are often used at military bases and airports to keep other birds from flying into propellers.
As a method of bird abatement to protect vineyards, however, it's still a relatively new concept. A handful of wineries in California are using falconry on a regular basis, but only two in Canada, Le Vieux Pin and Featherstone Estate Winery in Vineland, Ont.
"We're not actually hunting and killing birds," explains Mr. Jaster, a master falconer who spent more than 15 years in Victoria, where he raised and trained peregrine falcons for wealthy clients around the world. His two new warriors, a pair of young peregrine falcons named Tanjia and El Bicho, work more like cats in a warehouse - a constant predatory threat that keeps the starlings away.
During the summer, when the resident starlings are only a small nuisance, he keeps the raptors fit by taking them out twice a day, and simulates a hunt by swinging a lure - a hunk of meat attached to a rope - above his head.
When the falcon sees the meat swinging, it swoops down and tries to catch it. As the raptor makes it dive, Mr. Jaster quickly pulls the lure in. He repeats the manoeuvre about 30 times with each falcon, working in separate shifts.
"When they're flying after a lure, they look like they're hunting," Mr. Jaster explains. "... This is what scares [starlings]away."
Now that the weather is getting colder and the starlings are flocking in bigger groups, he keeps the falcons in his truck all day. As soon as he sees a flock, the hoods come off and hunters go to work.
"I don't know if it will ever go mainstream," Mr. Jaster says. "... It's a job for two months, but it's a big commitment to care for the falcons year-round."
In the United States, there are companies that rent out falconry services for two months a year, charging upward of $50 an hour.
Getty Pollard, owner of B-1RD Inc., a falconry bird abatement company that services E. & J. Gallo Winery's 400-acre Two Rock Vineyard in Sonoma County, Calif., says the price of his services for a 150-acre property would be comparable to that of netting.
Of course, you have to hire the right falconer. About 10 years ago, Mr. Cleave hired a falconer to work on a large number of properties he was managing along the South Okanagan's Black Sage Road, among them Burrowing Owl and Mission Hill. "They were basically just flying around his head," he remembers.
After several weeks at the cost of $700 a day, Mr. Cleave called off the experiment.
Over in Vineland, Louise Engel has had better luck. The co-owner and head grape grower at Featherstone Estate Winery started flying a Harris's hawk in her vineyard in 2004. She completed her falconer's licence - which involves a two-year training program - the following year.
"When I don't fly him - if I'm not well or it's raining or it's too busy - there is a noticeable increase in bird activity on the property," she says.
She says it works for her because she has a relatively small vineyard, about 20 acres, and lives onsite, making it easier to fly her hawk for a couple of hours everyday.
Still, she warns vineyards not to get too optimistic. "Falconry certainly helps, but it's not the magic bullet," says Ms. Engel, who still relies on canons, squawk boxes and netting.
Back in the Okanagan, Mr. Cleave is keeping his eye on the falcons at Le Vieux Pin.
"If falcons could keep these pests away, fabulous. It would save us an immense amount of money and an incredible amount of stress.
"And it would be very peaceful around here, instead of the bloody war zone it is now."
Special to The Globe and Mail