A symbiotic relationship between birds and grape growers is emerging, and its implications are vast.
By Kathleen Willcox
Since 1970, bird populations in North America alone have declined by nearly 3 billion, according to a study conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. One of the culprits of this mortality, according to scientists, is the pesticide. On 1 billion pounds of pesticides is sprayed in the United States every year. Beyond their intended effects, these poisons can contaminate water and soil and be toxic to a host of organisms, including birds, fish and even humans. according to the EPA.
Many winemakers are discovering that they can drastically reduce pesticide use – something many regions are working toin a broad push towards more sustainable cultivation practices – by recruiting wild winged workers.
“Birds and farmers can help each other,” says Matt Johnson, a wildlife habitat ecology professor at Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, Calif., who has led several studies of the symbiotic relationship between birds and vineyards. . “Our research focused on owls, primarily, but it also affected songbirds like swallows and bluebirds.
“Because so many natural nesting habitats have been destroyed by modern agriculture (including the planting of vines), winemakers find that inviting owls and songbirds into their vineyards not only helps the birds, but dramatically reduces rodent and insect populations.
One of Johnson’s alumni, Xerónimo Castañeda, currently conservation project manager at Audubon in California, notes that he’s had to deal with an influx of requests for bird information from vineyard managers in recent months.
“Costs of inputs like fuel and the cost of labor for managing pesticide programs have increased significantly recently,” Castañeda says. “People are starting to realize that by bringing in birds they can essentially get free labor – and the hands-off, chemical-free approach benefits everyone.”
Owls + Hawks Eliminate Rodents
Rodents have been ravaging agricultural fields since the dawn of agriculture. Grape growers are now discovering that owls act as more effective and environmentally friendly rodent terminators than pesticides in traps. A family of owls can eat an average of 3,466 rodents per year, according to Johnson’s research.
In 2007, Ames Morrison, co-founder of Healdsburg’s Medlock Ameslearned what effective allies owls can be when growing organic grapes.
“We installed owl boxes, and the posts where the boxes are mounted have a crossbar that attracts red-tailed hawks,” Morrison says. “These two birds feed on ground squirrels and voles, which can damage or kill our vines.”
The program has been so successful that the team plans to double its number of owl boxes over the next two years, for a final count of around 60.
William Thiersch, assistant winemaker and responsible for sustainable development at Ron Rubinsays the team at his 10-acre vineyard in Sebastopol, Calif., installed owl boxes in partnership with the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue Program and SEP certified.
“The four owl boxes we installed in 2016 were a game-changer for our vineyard manager,” says Theirsch. “Before, he spent a lot of time, money and effort setting traps, but the owls completely take care of our rodents. Now he can focus those efforts on growing grapes.
Falcons + Eagles make great grape guards
Some birds are also made to act as heavyweights against smaller birds that feast on grapes.
To Domaine Bousquet in Mendoza, Argentina, peregrine falcons have been introduced to scare away doves that nest in the roof of the winery, as well as grape-eating sparrows, says the winery’s agronomist, Franco Bastias.
“We have perches for diurnal birds of prey, such as eagles, kites and kestrels, to target starlings and other flying vertebrates that wreak havoc on the grapes,” says winemaker Luis Duarte from l ‘Alentejo, Portugal. Herdade dos Grous. “By reducing starling damage to grapes, the potential for fungal diseases, such as botrytis, is reduced.”
To Herdade of Coelheiros in the Alentejo, agricultural manager João Raposeira, explains that the recruitment of winged workers is part of the winery’s overall effort towards balance and sustainability.
“Having eagles and falcons in the vineyard creates a deterrent effect on small birds that can cause significant crop damage,” Raposeira explains. “From our point of view, any significant damage to fruits and crops caused by birds or insects is indicative of an imbalance. Birds are part of the ecosystem. Our goal is to interpret these systems and improve their balance and resilience through natural means.
Encouraging natural resilience and reducing the need to spray pesticides is the foundation of many vineyard bird programs.
In Italy, the Trentodoc Endrizzi the vines are grown organically and “we ask insectivorous birds for help”, explains CEO Christine Endrici. “Our 20 nesting boxes per hectare make the vineyard a sought-after habitat for chickadees, redstarts, sparrows, robins, hoopoes and bats, which say ‘thank you’ for hospitality by reliably fighting against pests such as vine worms and leafhoppers.”
Other producers, including Ken Forrester Wines in Raithyby, South Africa, are also finding that having a range of birds helping out in the vineyards allows them to reduce spraying programs significantly.
“We use ducks to control snails and insects, and we have raptor perches and owl boxes for rodents,” says winemaker Ken Forrester. “We also use chickens to control maggots.” In addition to “working birds”, the property is also home to native wildlife, including “dogs, geese, jackals, otters, porcupine, grysbokke, duikers, owls and other assorted birds.”
The “more is better” philosophy rules the day at Domaine Bousquet as well. “We encourage all wildlife by saving rainwater and dispersing it in the vineyard as watering points for foxes, wild rabbits and birds,” says Bastias. “We now have a healthy population of all kinds of flora and fauna, including endangered [species] which can bring unexpected benefits.
Several ducks, Bastias explains, have taken up residence in the cellar pond, and “their presence balances the vegetative growth of the pond and keeps it in balance.”
We have seen the unintended, largely negative consequences of industrial agriculture and monoculture in vineyards. It’s refreshing to see more and more producers enjoying the flip side.
Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, NY. She has a keen interest in sustainability issues and in making ethical food and beverages. His work appears regularly in wine researcher, wine lover, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen has also co-authored a book titled Hudson Valley Wine: A Story of Taste and Terroirwhich was released in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox