A leading international falcon research team has had a major break-through in persuading New Zealand's rare native falcon to act as vineyard guardians protecting valuable grape crops from other feathered pests.
The first year's successful trials led by United Kingdom-based falconry consultant and raptor biologist, Dr Nick Fox, promises cheaper protection of grape crops in a world-first experiment with young falcon chicks taken from the wild.
Specially-reared falcons have played havoc with raiding scavengers in two vineyards in Marlborough, New Zealand's fast expanding sauvignon blanc wine region.
The first two pairs of falcons lived free in their new vineyard habitats, spending their time killing some of the major bird predators that annually destroy millions of dollars worth of wine grapes throughout New Zealand. The only setback so far was the July murder of one young female by a wild cat. One female falcon has paired up with a male partner, sparking hope that they may breed their own vineyard-based free-flying offspring to guard the vines.
Project staff take selected wild falcon chicks from nests in the mountains, rear them in predator-proof artificial nest barrels set up in a vineyard, and feed them until they identify with the area and start their own hunting operations at about seven weeks of age. The Marlborough trials show that running a pair of vineyard-based falcons costs about the same as feeding one domestic cat. They happily domicile in their adopted vineyard, seem totally fearless of man, and are unperturbed by wineyard workers using machinery, bird scaring devices, or even shotgun patrols on other bird species.
Project general manager Colin Wynn says the young falcons fly around all day catching, chasing or killing birds in the air or hiding in the vines. They're almost self-supporting, supplied just enough daily dead chick waste from the poultry industry to keep them from straying.
When very young, they instinctively practise their hunting techniques catching dragon flies on the wing, and gradually progress to live birds and mice. Fully grown, the larger females eat about two birds per day, the smaller male consumes one.
Plans are under way to attach the falcons to GPS data loggers so their location can be continuously tracked and down-loaded on computer, allowing vineyard owners to plot exactly where the falons have patrolled. The falcons are constantly on the move from dawn until dusk, producing a noticeable decrease in grape-raiding bird pests.
If the falcons show interest in nesting this season, the team hopes to mother some young chicks on to them later in the spring. They are not exspected to breed until next year. The team will also try to introduce new young chicks from the wild this season.
Wynn says the falcons won't be the total answer to bird damage in vineyards, but could become an extra new cost-effective protection measure. The NZ$100,000 cost, financed from vineyard levies by the New Zealand Wine Institute and the Sustainable Farming Fund aims to increase the population of New Zealand's seriously-threatened wild falcon population. All the wine industry's pest birds are introduced species such as blackbirds and thrushes brought in by early settlers.
Using free roaming falcons is a totally new concept. Overseas, particularly in California, raptors working under trained handlers are used for bird protection on farms and orchards, but at much greater cost. Marlborough's scientists estimate it would take up to 100 skilled falconers to cover Marlborough's many vineyards.
Dr Fox, director of Falcon Research and Management with the Abu Dhabi Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency, has studied raptors world-wide, written books and produced films and documentaries on birds of prey, and runs raptor breeding and research projects in the UK, Russia, Middle East and Mongolia. His wife, co-director Barbro Fox, has been involved for 20 years in fieldwork and research on birds of prey. They established a research and rearing base near wild falcon habitat in the Marlborough mountains.
Bird damage costs the New Zealand wine industry millions of dollars annually in crop losses, with Marlborough's 10,000 ha losing from 3% to 15% alone.
Some experts estimate New Zealand's wild falcon population could be down to less than 400 pairs, surviving only in remote mountain areas. The bird was once common but has vanished from most of New Zealand after the pioneer farmers felled millions of hectares of the falcon's rain forest habitat last century. The falcon dives at incredible speed, and has been recorded killing much larger domestic ducks and poultry, although they range in weight from only 500 grams for the larger female, to 300g for the male.
Dr Fox obtained his doctorate under a British grant to study the rare falcon at New Zealand's Canterbury University in the 1970's and took six falcons back to England for breeding and research. He is now a world authority on raptors such as Northern Goshawks, Australasian harriers, kestrels, red kites, Sakers and Peregrines. He directs other raptor conservation projects in Britain, Central Asia, and the Middle East.