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Cotati man's owls put vineyard rodents on the run


Vineyard managers have wrestled for years over how to control pests, including gophers and other rodents, that can destroy their vines and fields. For old-timers, there was the do-it-yourself option of tying a hose to the exhaust pipe of a tractor and placing it into the rodents’ burrows. Once popular, toxic baiting has fallen out of favor in the era of sustainable farming. Traps are useful, but very labor intensive.

The challenge has been to find an economical and environmental friendly way to rid farm fields of gophers and voles without resorting to the escalating measures epitomized by Bill Murray’s groundskeeper character in “Caddyshack.”

One Cotati man has an avian solution: planting nesting boxes for barn owls in vineyards so they can prey upon rodents. John Schuster, owner of Wild Wing Co., said his boxes have helped put a significant dent in gopher populations in North Bay vineyards and beyond, using nature to protect a multibillion-dollar crop.

“The thing about barn owls is that they are open habitat hunters. It’s a fabulous way of combating both of these pests (gophers and voles),” Schuster said.

A former professional musician with a passion for conservation and forestry, he formed Wild Wings in 2000, and a part-time vocation eventually became a full-time business.

“I’m not really making a lot of money here, but it’s not about the money for me,” Schuster said. “I’m very passionate about it. I love what I do.”

His small business has spread mostly through word of mouth among vineyard managers, who are looking for new pest control tools as the wine industry moves to become more eco-conscious. Locally, the push includes the Sonoma County Winegrowers’ pledge to make the county completely sustainable in its farming practices by 2019 through a checklist that covers issues such as energy efficiency, water and pest management.

For an increasing number of grape growers, using natural predators to address an age-old rodent problem makes good business sense.

“If you have property in Sebastopol, you have a gopher issue,” said Steve Dutton, president and co-owner of Sebastopol-based Dutton Ranch. Wild Wing recently installed nesting boxes on an eight-acre of Dutton Ranch vineyards where gophers are threatening the vines. Dutton said he hopes the move will help, noting he has heard positive reviews from other managers.

Mike Doyle, co-owner of CD Ranches, said he has seen a significant decrease in the rodent population after Wild Wing’s nesting boxes were installed about a year ago in his vineyards in Cloverdale. “It’s made a big, big difference,” Doyle said. “We hardly have none compared to what we used to have.”

Wild Wing’s boxes cost $550 for installation and Schuster provides maintenance and cleaning for an additional fee. The company also builds raptor perches and osprey platforms.

The Cotati-based company is not the only local outlet offering nesting boxes. The Hungry Owl Project, a Novato nonprofit, also installs and maintains nesting boxes for a fee. It has worked with North Bay vineyards, according to Alex Godbe, Hungry Owl’s executive director.

One expert, however, cautioned that there little scientific data that shows owl boxes can reduce rodent population.

“It would be nice to have a more definitive study on the potential of owls for the management of rodent population,” said Roger Baldwin, a UC Davis Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist “It has not been studied in great detail.”

Growers should not rely on one approach, Baldwin said, and he finds traps one of the most effective devices. Fumigating with aluminum phosphide has also been shown to be beneficial, he said, though its use is limited to certified pest-control operators.

Schuster remains bullish on his boxes, though he said traps can work as a supplement to his product. He is an unlikely entrepreneur in pest eradication, given his former career as a singer and musician who opened concerts for the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Jett, Al Green and John Mellencamp. He also served as a stage manager for musical artists.

But his customers say he is the right man for the job.

“John was the real deal,” said Koerner “KR” Rombauer III, general manager and vice president of Rombauer Vineyards in St. Helena, which recently put up owl boxes and raptor perches on its property. “Any question we had, he could answer.”

Schuster has a crew that assists with crafting and installing, and his business has grown to include work for golf courses as well as cemeteries, though 80 percent of his business is with wineries.

“Over the Years, people are making a shift. We will feel Wild Wing Co. is poised to continue to grow,” he said. “As long as there are rodents, I will be in business.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.