The Falconer

The wine industry draws all types, from burnt-out pharmaceutical reps to engineers to musicians. For many, the pathway arrives in the form of an unforgettable glass of wine, often enjoyed abroad. For Kort Clayton, the connection to wine was forged by the wings of a well-trained bird of prey. 

Clayton is part of the small and intriguing community otherwise known as falconry. His Portland-based business, Integrated Avian Solutions, trains raptors to scare off so-called “nuisance birds.” A day on the job could see Clayton anywhere from a waste facility looking to rid the premises of seagulls to a downtown business district looking to fend off thousands of crows. 

The growth of Willamette Valley wine and its longstanding battle with grape-loving birds is an obvious target for the business. His current team of five falcons was subjected to a training program not entirely unlike that for most pets. Trust is established between bird and man and positive behavior — namely the raptor’s instinctive ability to chase smaller birds — is rewarded with food.

The birds are naturally afraid of humans but Clayton is able to overcome that gradually. Once a bird is feeding from the glove, it is taught incrementally to step up to the glove and ultimately fly from growing distances to the glove. “Within a month or two, they are flying free, following us around the vineyard and sometimes soaring and chasing birds for an hour or more,” Clayton says. 

Integrated Avian Solutions touts a fleet of about a dozen species of falcons and hawks which they call up for work in vineyards in the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge. “Falcons are the backbone of our farm and vineyard teams,” Clayton says. “Peregrines are one of my favorites but honestly, I love them all.”

Winemakers have plenty of things to worry about during harvest on top of resident starlings, cedar waxwings, house finches, robins, blackbirds and crows. Clayton and his feathered friends can send the unwanted visitors on their way by presence alone. His fleet rarely attacks the smaller birds but instead establishes a firm and fearsome footing at a specific site.

“A falconry program is also a net positive investment, meaning you save enough grapes to pay for the program, often several times over.” Clayton says. “It has the added advantage of being the most natural and sustainable model of bird control.”

Falcony goes back at least 3,000 years, with origins in Mongolia and ancient Egypt. The practice peaked in the 17th Century and was especially popular among elites and hunters before the advent of firearms changed hunting forever. Today, there’s a small but growing circle of domestic falconers responding to a growing viticultural need from the Finger Lakes to the Yamhill-Carlton AVAs. 

Soter Vineyards Ranch Manager and Viticulturist Nadine Basile says it’s the most effective strategy she’s found to date. She solicits Clayton’s help during the month prior to harvest, when the sugar levels of her Mineral Springs Ranch grapes rise to tempting levels. 

“I like the noise-free, hassle-free approach to bird abatement,” she says. “It’s also a strategy that targets multiple species and the birds don’t acclimate like they would with other methods.” 

Those who’ve been to wine country during harvest have likely witnessed some of the other methods — the jarring boom of a propane canon, the sparkle of reflective ribbon in the vineyard, the recorded bird distress calls playing on loop. It’s a fascinating scenario that, when effective, can leave an estate eerily bird-less.

When ineffective, the scene is more Hitchcockian and the results can be devastating. In 2010, thanks in part to a late harvest and certain migrating species, some Willamette Valley producers lost up to three-quarters of their crop to birds. For some, there was barely enough fruit left to warrant a vintage. 

Netting a vineyard is another popular deterrent but Basile believes it to be both time consuming and a burden to the all-important vineyard canopy. “We’ve found that falconry more than pays for itself when we have wine tourists and neighbors to consider,” she adds.

For Clayton, who fell into falconry through an undergraduate advisor while studying biology some 25 years ago, it’s all about an organic fix. The falcons get to do what they do best and another vintage is secured, provided nothing goes awry in the cellar. 

“Falconry is the gold standard of bird control,” Clayton concludes. “ Nothing repels birds faster or for longer than a free-flying raptor.”

by Mark A. Stock | markastock.com
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon who spent a healthy stretch in the Dundee Hills making, selling and drinking wine. He’s written for Willamette Week, Oregon Wine Press, Travel Oregon, Sip Northwest, SevenFifty and more. Fly-fishing, Icelandic soccer and The Simpsons are among his favorite distractions.