It’s feeding time at Brad Felger’s farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley. And he’s about to feed 40 hungry falcons.
They’re an important, albeit often unseen, part of farming in some states, used as a defense mechanism to keep away pesky birds like starlings, which love to eat berries and apples.
Since age 12, Felger has had a self-described love for everything with feathers, scales or tails.
“Falconers are, what’s the word I’m looking for … eccentric,” Felger says.
Now he runs Airstrike Bird Control as founder and CEO.
His business? Raptor abatement.
It’s different than traditional falconry because rather than hunting quarry, he uses his falcons to scare off birds that can be bad news for crops.
In 2017, he employed about 30 falconers and used over 100 falcons (only about 25 of those are Felger’s) to control troublesome crop-eaters.
According to research in the journal Crop Protection, in 2011 in Washington state alone, honeycrisp apple farmers lost nearly $3,000 per acre to birds eating their produce.
While nets can secure fruit trees and noisemakers can scare birds, there are drawbacks to each tool. Nets can be expensive, and birds can get used to noise-scare tactics.
“It’s using nature against nature. And it’s something birds never get used to,” Felger says. “They never get used to an aggressive falcon flying toward them.”
Felger’s operation is non-lethal for the birds that the falcons scare away.
He flies his falcons all along the U.S. West Coast. In Washington, he starts with blueberry farms in May, then travels east, ending with vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin through the fall.
His operation is gaining popularity, especially with organic and eco-friendly farms.
Patricia Thompson is the falconry manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This season she permitted nearly 300 recreational falconers in the state. Thompson says she’s noticed an uptick in this style of pest control.
“It feels like more people are getting into abatement falconry,” Thompson said. “And it does seem to be more ecological to haze the birds off, rather than using pesticides.”
Thompson isn’t sure how many of those falconers practice abatement since the state doesn’t offer those permits. That permit comes at the federal level through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All states except Hawaii allow falconry. In other states, abatement falconers also work with landfill sites, golf courses and warehouses where birds can be a nuisance.
Thompson is quick to point out how intense falconry can be. It starts with a two-year apprenticeship, followed by an exam, and even a site visit where wildlife department officials examine facilities. She calls it a real lifestyle because the birds take so much time to care for and are in hunting-working relationships with their falconers.
At Fegler’s farm, breeding season has already started. Next month, Felger is hoping to add 40 baby falcons to his cast of the hardworking birds of prey. Soon these little birds will start training to become the next generation of fruit-saving predators, maybe protecting a blueberry field or apple orchard near you.