On a hillside vineyard at Two Rock Ranch in Cotati, Niamh perched atop her long yellow talons on the gloved hand of Kenley Christensen.
As Christensen removed a leather hood from the 7-year-old falcon, Niamh (pronounced "neev") tilted her little head to take in her surroundings, then snacked on a bit of quail that Christensen pulled out of a satchel on his hip.
A moment later, Niamh flapped her wings, spread them to their three-foot span and swooped out over the vineyards she patrols, circling low over rows of pinot noir and chardonnay.
It's an Old World tradition rarely seen in Sonoma County, where growing grapes for wine is a $400 million business. The falcon's job is to swoop through the vineyards and scare the starlings and other birds away from the valuable crop.
"It's scientific what they're doing," said Jim Collins, senior director for coastal winegrowing at E&J Gallo, which owns Two Rock Ranch. "It really is an art."
The vineyard is on a flyway for starlings, who love to feast on the seeds of the grapes, Collins said. Without the falcon, he estimates Gallo could risk losing 20 percent of the vineyard's annual crop. The birds' pecks also can contribute to the spread of botrytis, or bunch rot, which is more likely to develop in grapes with split skins.
Vineyard managers employ many techniques to deter starlings and other birds, spreading netting over the vines or sounding thundering cannon-like booms that can disturb neighbors.
The falcon patrols about 400 acres of the company's rows in Cotati. In Gallo's other vineyards, natural predators like hawks are already present, leaving little need for a falcon.
Falcon and falconer cost about $150 to $200 an acre for the season, Collins said, compared to about $300 an acre for netting. For many smaller vineyards, the per-acre price for a falconer is prohibitive.
The falcon wears a radio tracking device strapped to each ankle, allowing Christensen to find the bird if it does not return.
The trick is to train the predator to shoot after its prey, without actually eating the catch.
"We're trying to get the most predatory presence that we can," Christensen said. "If we do kill something, it will take her 45 minutes to eat it, and we could have flocks of starlings coming in while she's eating it on the ground."
So Christensen and his partner trained the bird not to feast on the starlings. As the two- to three-pound falcon starts its three- to four-hour shift, it's hungry enough to hunt, but not so hungry that it will kill. Besides, it has an easier meal waiting with Christensen.
Christensen has been working with birds of prey since he was 13, when his interest was piqued by his middle school principal's hawk. His cellphone ringtone is the cry of a falcon courting, a sound he recorded himself and transferred to his phone.
In the summer, Christensen and the falcons travel from their home in Lostine, Ore., to work the blueberry harvest near Portland from June to August. Then in September they head down to Sonoma County to patrol the wine grapes until the end of harvest.
"It's more of a lifestyle than a hobby," Christensen said. "We're taking care of birds 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
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