Meet the Falcon-Whisperer of Napa Valley Wine Country

Rebecca Rosen makes a living off protecting vineyards from berry-eating pests with the help of trained birds of prey.

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Oct 19 2016, 4:00pm

In the misty afternoon light, as the sun shines hard on Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa Valley, Rebecca Rosen strides into the vines, her thick blonde hair braided alongside her left shoulder. Her hybrid breed Gyr-Prairie falcon, an impressive brown-and-white specimen about one-foot high, with yellow claws and a leather helmet covering its skull and eyes, is perched on her other shoulder. It's the fourth vineyard on Rosen's agenda today, and she'll probably hit two more, later. During harvest season, her services as a falconer are in high demand. After whispering some nurturing words into the falcon's feathery neck, Rosen removes its helmet, strokes it kindly, and then sends it up into the bright azure sky, where it flaps its wings and begins making large circles around the vineyard, its four-foot wingspan visible for miles. From below, Rosen watches proudly; after several minutes, when the falcon has made his presence known to all the area birds, Rosen waves a rope in the air to lure him back. Once he is safe on the rope, she snuggles the helmet back onto his head, and hands him a tiny, live baby chick—a reward for his efforts.

Although vineyards typically benefit from biodiversity—some larger insects will eat vine-devouring pests, for instance—they also struggle to keep small birds away from sugar-rich, ripe berries, especially toward the end of their growing cycle, when growers are counting on those grapes to become dollars (particularly in places like Napa, which makes very expensive wine). Birds of prey from the hawk or falcon families are a natural, simple way to keep them at bay, without inflicting any violence upon them. Rosen's falcon, named Ziggy, is really just a decoy—it doesn't actually hunt, but simply scares off berry-consuming birds with its mighty presence.

with-falconer

Rebecca Rosen. All photos courtesy Jon McPherson for Napa Valley Vintners.

"Ziggy never really wanted to hunt, for some reason," explains Rosen. "Most of our falcons don't hunt—they're trained to lure fly." Ziggy, one of nine falcons that Rosen works with, was born on a breeding farm, and its unique nature made it ideal for abatement employment.

Rosen started her company, Authentic Abatement, in 2011, after spending several years learning the art of falconry. She now makes a proper living in probably one of the most unusual and highly skilled trades on the planet. In addition to vineyards, Rosen also employs her falcons at dairies, Air Force bases, nuclear plants, and industrial refineries. "It's sort of a skill and an art, [and] everybody does it a little differently," says Rosen. "To train a bird, depending on its background, if it's just from a breeder, it needs to calm down first and associate you with food. That can take as much as several months, or it can be as little as a month."

Although California has long been dominated by agriculture, it's really only since the late 1970s, when the Napa Valley's fame rose—thanks to a blind tasting called the Judgment of Paris, where a Napa cabernet beat out its French counterparts, to everyone's surprise—that grape farming has effectively become a monoculture in the region. The 1968 Agricultural Preserve was passed to protect Napa's forests and riverside ecosystems from development, for grapes or otherwise—a total of 32,000 acres are set aside under this ordinance. Only about 9 percent of land in Napa is planted to grapes, but that's still 45,000 acres of viticulture, and it has an effect on the environment. "Because of the monoculture up here in the North Bay, there's a monospecies—a few different species of birds who are really adaptable to this habitat," says Rosen. And, "they've created this huge population explosion," with these few species effectively crowding out native birds, like quails, sparrows, and black phoebes, which prefer to nosh on insects or seeds rather than grapes. Global warming and lighter winters contribute to the decimation of the native bird habitats, says Rosen. A point of pride for her is that her beloved falcons are helping to combat this influx of non-native berry-eating birds.

falcon-in-flight

"Most of our falcons don't hunt—they're trained to lure fly," says Rosen.
rachel-and-falcon The author with a hooded falcon.

"Birds stay together in large blocks to feel safe," explains Rosen. "The falcon breaks up the block, and pushes them out into smaller groups, which split up. Blue birds, you want in your vineyard, and they'll be the ones who stay. You don't want a sterile vineyard with no birds." On the contrary, the native birds do only a "small amount" of damage to the vineyards, and meanwhile, "they help spread seeds and eat bugs."

Aside from having Rosen and other falconers trolling their vineyards, vintners in the Napa Valley install wooden birdhouses among their vines to attract predators, like owls. But small birds aren't the only threat to grape farming; wild turkeys, which the state of California encouraged to breed as a game species, are known to gobble up all the low-hanging fruit, especially sweeter grapes like merlot. Turkeys can't really be abated by falcons, says Rosen. Falconry may not be an all-purpose solution, and it has its drawbacks—sometimes, Rosen says, the berry-eating invasive birds return just hours after she has let her falcon do its thing, and she has to repeat the whole ritual for double effect—but falconry is definitely part of the solution to the challenges of monoculture grape-growing. Falconers like Rosen are making a huge contribution to the overall well-being of the wine industry, as well as the ecosystem that allows it to thrive.

To become an abatement falconer like Rosen, you would have to start off as a sport falconer, and spend a few years in training before learning the art of abatement. Then, there's a five-year period before it's possible to get the license to practice. But the hard work does pay off—Rosen works tirelessly during harvest, which in the Napa Valley runs from August, for the early-picking grapes, to late September for Bordeaux varieties that need more hang time. She'll hit as many as ten vineyards per day during that time, but once it's over, she can take a few months off. There's also the perk of spending all day outside, in the fresh air and California sun. And for animal lovers, it's a great job: "The relationship with the birds is amazing. I'd compare it to people who ride horses," says Rosen. Each relationship is "unique and individual," and based on trust.

Of course, you might also expect that one bonus of this job would be access to great wine. Ironically, though, Rosen's favorite wines come from Coronado Vineyards, in her home state of Arizona; she's particularly fond of their rieslings. Otherwise, says Rosen, she's likely to be drinking a lush red blend from Ménage á Trois, made with grapes from all over California. When her Napa clients do give her bottles, Rosen saves them for special occasions, savoring the taste of something she—and her fleet of loyal falcons—helped to preserve.