good morning, handsome

Birds in the Vineyard

Grapegrowers and birds have a love-hate relationship

For most of the year, the vineyard is a great place for birds. The nooks and crannies created by canes and cordons make for perfect nesting spots while the lush canopy overhead provides much-needed shade and protection from predators. The soil is a genuine buffet of creepy crawling critters – from insects for the starlings and bluebirds to larger rodents for the hawks and owls. For the most part, birds are not only tolerated by vineyard managers, but frequently encouraged to move on in.

“As part of our sustainability program, we have 10 owl boxes established throughout our properties,” says proprietor Ryan McDonnell of Round Pond Estate in Napa Valley. She is just one of the many Napa Valley Grapegrowers who look to birds as a natural way to manage pests. “Right now, we have baby barn owls in the box on the southeast corner of the vineyard. Once a box is populated, the mating pair will likely return next year too. Owls in general and barn owls especially, are one of the tools we use to help keep gophers and voles in balance.” Smaller birds can help out with smaller pests like mites and mealy bugs.

But come veraison, when vines are working hard to make fruit that is sweet and attractive to birds in order to propagate themselves, certain birds become a pest to grapegrowers. By doing the very thing nature intends them to do, which is to eat the fruit and spread the seeds of the grapes, birds can decimate an entire vintage. To keep birds from pecking away a year’s worth of wine, vineyard managers employ a variety of strategies: from shiny, blinding tinsel-like flags and scarecrows to air guns that go off at predetermined intervals (having a peaceful walk through a vineyard suddenly punctuated by what seems to be gunfire can be quite unnerving).

“Timing is everything,” says Natalie Winkler, the Assistant Winemaker and Viticulturist at Mill Creek Vineyards and Winery in Dry Creek Valley. “The strips have an efficacy of 10 to 14 days before the birds ignore them and really tear into the berries. Therefore, we wait until they begin to peck before taking action.”

Many vineyards aren’t willing to take any chances and instead employ the most extreme and arguably most effective protection for their fruit, which is to literally wrap their vines in nets. Tied at the base of the vines and tented over the canopy, netting is mostly successful in keeping birds away from the sweet plump berries. But all too often, birds still find a way in. And what would have been an otherwise great afternoon snack can turn deadly for our tiny feathered friends. Once entangled in the netting, it is nearly impossible for birds to fight their way out. In their struggle, birds will often break a wing, a leg or even their neck. So even if they  are freed by a vineyard worker before they starve to death, the crippled bird still won’t survive.

Some casualties are inevitable, but many bird deaths can be prevented by responsible vineyard management. We urge vineyard managers and owners to keep netting in good condition and teach workers how to apply it appropriately, so we can do a better job of keeping all birds out — not just enough to save our crop, but to save the lives of birds as well. Because part of sustainable practices isn’t just keeping birds around as long as they are doing us a favor.