By Tara Maxwell
Falcons are a predator of feathered farmyard dwellers, but they can be put to positive use on the farm. When it comes to employing creative solutions for naturally protecting crops on organic farms, perhaps the sky really is the limit. Duncan Family Farms, an organic grower located in Goodyear, Arizona, specializing in baby greens, kale, beets, chard and herbs is using an innovative method for bird abatement: falconry.
Duncan Family Farms has been working with Falcon Force since fall of 2016, according to Specialty Crop Manager Patty Emmert. Falcon Force has been practicing nuisance bird abatement for six years and operates in five states. Their clients include farms, orchards, vineyards, resorts and airports. Falcon Force uses the predator/prey relationship to eliminate pest birds, which can cause millions of dollars in damages. Falcon Force uses a team of trained falcons to intimidate and scare off nuisance birds such as the horned larks and pigeons that frequent the area.
For nearly all vegetable growers, small birds can present a big challenge — they not only eat seeds after they’ve been planted, but can also shed feathers or defecate in the fields, triggering additional food safety measures. Previously, Duncan Family Farms had staff walk the fields with shakers or slings to scare birds away, but the birds got accustomed to the noise and presence of people, becoming progressively harder to chase off.
Duncan Family Farms is a family-owned, multi-regional grower of more than 8,000 acres of certified organic produce. Founded in 1985 by Arnott and Kathleen Duncan, the company is one of the largest growers of organic produce, nationally recognized for their farming techniques and premium-quality food for processors, retail and foodservice distributors.
As an organic grower committed to sustainability, Duncan Family Farms was motivated to find an effective solution that eschewed the use of traditional approaches such as flares, firecrackers, or Mylar, all of which are harmful to the environment and have the potential to leave debris in the fields and cause product losses. These methods are also not an effective long-term option because birds get used to them.
Falcons: A Force for Good
Falcon Force uses the natural predator/prey relationship to deter nuisance birds long-term — their main goal is to chase the nuisance birds away. Once a horned lark sees one of its natural predators flying and swooping nearby, it’s going to immediately find a safer place to forage for food. An additional benefit of the trained falcons flying in the fields is that native predator birds will also leave the area to find new hunting ground, meaning they are less likely to kill a prey bird in the field.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the results — we can actually watch the nuisance birds leave the area and not come back,” said Jeremy Vanderzyl, technical services manager at Duncan Family Farms. “A single falcon can cover a large area effectively and efficiently and allows us to avoid putting our personnel in uncomfortable or potentially unsafe conditions.”
Falcon Force was at Duncan Family Farms in Goodyear through the end of April, and the farm has plans to continue the relationship at other growing locations with different bird abatement challenges such as large migratory birds like ducks and geese.
“It’s immediate, it’s sustainable, it’s organic and it’s biodynamically perfect,” said Kalen Pearson of Falcon Force. “Birds are always going to be afraid of other birds; it’s never something they’re going to get used to like a scarecrow or noisemaker.”
Pearson, a member of Falcon Force’s abatement team, began her journey into falconry at the age of 19, flying gyrfalcons and peregrine falcons. A few years later she began a career as a professional falconer. Each abatement team member has her own crew of raptors that they have extensively trained and are currently working with.
Tara Maxwell is managing editor of Acres U.S.A. magazine. She is a graduate of Virginia Tech with a background in journalism and animal science and a passion for sustainable farming.