Scarecrows, raptors and robotic facsimiles, propane cannons, reflective flags, netting — farmers have been trying all kinds of methods over the centuries to keep birds from turning their hard work into a feast just as the crop is ready for market. One North Coast grower decided to bring in the lasers.
No, they weren’t for zapping the avian intruders in sci-fi fashion. Joan and Jim Griffin leased four Agrilaser Autonomic systems from Holland-based Bird Control Group to patrol their 21-acre Petaluma Gap appellation vineyard with beams of lime green light. The idea is that the randomly roving tennis ball-sized laser spotlights would be more effective in keeping out the birds than the over-the-row netting they had employed at Griffin’s Lair Vineyards, which grows mostly pinot noir grapes and 5 acres of syrah.
“The birds come in waves,” said Jim Griffin. “The laser does not stop them from coming into the vineyard, but when the dot comes along, it scares them, and they fly away. Often, we’ll have 20 birds descend on the area, then they’ll go a few hundred yards away, until the beam comes across them, and they move again.”
The Griffins have been battling the birds for going on two decades. They bought the ranch, located 10 miles south of Petaluma, in 1995 for cattle grazing. When they decided to try grape growing, Joan Griffin studied viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. The vineyard was planted in 1999–2000, she manages the vineyard, using Napa-based Atlas Vineyard Management as a labor contractor.
Buyers of the grapes include Adobe Road Winery, Delgado Wines, Lombardi Wines, Loxton Cellars, Ram’s Gate and Wind Gap Wines. Vineyard-designated syrahs are made by Bedrock Wines, Loxton, Pax Mahle Wines, and Spottswoode. Pax Mahle has made a Griffin’s Lair vineyard designate since 2002.
But the noted vineyard has prime roosting real estate nearby, a row of eucalyptus trees. In late summer, thousands of finches sortie in from the stand to gorge on the ripening grapes. Premium vineyards routinely thin the grape crop to ensure that the plants concentrate their nutrients on the best fruit. But Jim Griffin said the birds were taking up to 20 percent more.
“That’s when we went to netting,” he said.
Bird damage to winegrapes is estimated to be $49.1 million dollars annually for California, followed by $12.9 million in Washington, $3.45 million in New York and $2.68 million in Oregon. Top culprits are European starlings, American robins and wild turkeys.
Griffin’s Lair employed nets for a decade. First, the Griffins brought in slack netting then went to more-expensive 14-foot-long horizontal nets that often are deployed and removed by machine and a crew of four. It took three to four days to set the out the nets on the small vineyard.
The nets themselves would last for several years, but holes would develop as shoots would grow through and have to be cut out, Griffin said. At harvest, picking crews would have to lift the nets out of the way to get to the fruit, and passing tractors often would snag the nets, causing more holes.
And the birds in following seasons would find those holes, he said. The cost of buying and working with the nets was as much as $25,000 a year. Four Agrilaser Autonomic 500 lasers were installed in May 2017.