Natural air force guards fruit at Burbank's Applegate Orchards

BURBANK -- The several dozen falcons keeping watch over Jim Lott's Burbank blueberry fields are an evolving manifestation of his self-described penchant for "overdoing things."

"Once it starts, it almost takes on a life of its own," said the owner of Applegate Orchards. "It's a pretty big business."

Within the last year Lott has acquired and bred about 70 aplomado falcons that he uses in a unique bird abatement program.

And not only have Lott's blueberries flourished -- for the first time this year people are invited to the orchard to pick their own berries -- but the falcon patrol has been so successful that Lott has hired nearly a dozen falconers to manage the birds and now contracts them to patrol other farmers' fields.

"Our goal is to scare (pest) birds," Lott said.

He also has a team breeding falcons and quail for their food supply.

The program seems to be working well, as Lott said almost no berries are lost to avian thievery.

Lott said when he first planted blueberries seven years ago, many called him crazy for trying to grow the fruit in such a hot climate.

But Eastern Washington's blueberry crop has since exploded and the berries now grow on about 2,500 acres in the drier part of the state, said Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Blueberry Commission.

Blueberry acreage doubled east of the Cascades in the last two years as the fruit has become more popular, he added. "Blueberries have a well-deserved reputation for being very nutritious and healthy," Schreiber said.

And Eastern Washington, despite initial concerns about too much heat, turned out to have ideal conditions for blueberries, he added.

"A lot of diseases and insects are very specific to blueberries," Schreiber said. "Because we don't have native species here or anything like them here, we don't have the pests."

People who love to down the juicy berries like candy can take heart as the yield looks good this year, Lott and Schreiber said.

"They taste great," Schreiber said. "There's going to be a lot of blueberries."

In 2008, 4,100 acres of blueberries were harvested statewide for a crop worth more than $43.3 million, according to the Washington Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Last year's acreage was a nearly 21 percent increase over the 3,400 acres harvested statewide in 2006, according to NASS.

And Lott's falcon patrol provides a perfect tool to make sure his valuable crop gets to market.

On a recent Tuesday, seven falconers patrolled Lott's 250 acres of berries with three falcons each.

By late morning, starlings, robins and finches mostly knew to stay out of the area to protect themselves, said Polo Gallegos, 21, of Pasco, one of Lott's newest falconers.

Gallegos was working with Reggie, who had a bell on his ankle for easier tracking.

Effective bird abatement requires the falconers to walk through the fields as a falcon flies overhead. If pest birds aren't around, the falcons are given an occasional treat to keep them motivated, Gallegos said.

One bird can cover about 40 acres, Lott said. And working the birds is somewhat of an art.

The falcon must be kept at just the right hunger level to fly -- too hungry and it will attack and eat the pest birds, too full and it isn't motivated to engage in a chase. Falconers are able to monitor the birds' hunger by weighing them.

Gallegos used to work irrigation for Lott but took an interest in the falcons and recently passed the test to get his handling permit, which is issued by the state in partnership with the federal government.

Working with a bird he's trained is very satisfying, Gallegos said, adding that he enjoys the chases.

"It's like, 'I can't believe I just trained this bird,' " he said.

A year ago, Lott knew little more about falcons other than the raptors had potential to help him keep harmful birds away from his berries.

So he teamed up with Jim Nelson, a longtime Kennewick teacher and student of falconry history who had been running a federally approved aplomado breeding project for 10 years.

He used the birds, which are native to South America, for sport falconry, which he likens to hunting with a bird instead of a gun.

But when an opportunity arose for Nelson to move back to Alaska later this summer where he'll return to training teachers in Eskimo villages, Lott's orchard proved to be the perfect home for the falcons.

Nelson said he will stay actively involved with the bird abatement program, which he called "really invigorating."

"It really feels like we're doing something that's socially beneficial" for the farmers, the falcons and falconers and the environment, he said.

Nelson's federal permits for handling falcons, bird abatement and breeding have been vital for Lott's program, as the orchard is operating under Nelson's permits. "We're doing this all under federal permit," Nelson said.

For others interested in a similar program, Nelson warns the birds are a "big time" commitment and shouldn't be used by anyone not seriously interested and invested in them.

Lott's blueberry orchard illustrates the commitment needed to make the falcon program sustainable.

Several greenhouse-like buildings line one side of the orchard, each housing birds at different stages of development.

In one shed, 13 falcons in training sat on perches about a foot off the ground. They hatched this year, Lott said, which shows in the furry white down some still sported on top of their heads.

They'll be ready for bird abatement use later this season, he added.

It takes about three months to train the birds, a process that starts by handling them enough that they'll perch on a handler's fingers.

"To get to the point where you can just pick it up is a big deal," Lott said as he handled a young falcon.

Training continues as falconers get the birds to fly for pieces of food and then return to hand. At that point they're ready to fly free, Lott said.

Applegate Orchards has 25 trained falcons, another 15 in the training process and another 10 about to start.

To ensure the orchard will have enough falcons to cover its own acreage and outside requests for bird abatement, Lott also has a falcon breeding program that includes 12 pairs of birds.

And to feed all the falcons, the orchard also breeds quail.

"We're feeding about 40 quail per day," Lott said. "We have to have a food supply."

Now that Lott's falconry program is self-sustaining, he's getting lots of interest from other orchardists. The falconers are training two other blueberry farmers to whom Lott will lease his birds to use.

And the falconers have traveled as far as Bakersfield, Calif., where the birds were used to keep cherries safe from peck holes. "There's been a lot of interest," Lott said.

He's hoping vineyard owners will take advantage of the birds too.

The charge for a day of bird abatement is $600, Lott said. But for high-value fruit crops the birds are cost-effective.

Last year's blueberry acreage statewide yielded an average of 7,800 pounds of berries each, according to NASS. At the 2008 price of $1.36 per pound, the average price farmers received statewide, one acre grossed about $10,600.

As Reggie swooped and dived above the blueberry bushes on a recent morning, Gallegos talked about how each bird has its own personality.

"You get to know them well," he said.

Lott agreed: "Some of them look a little different, some act differently. Some of them are more aggressive hunters ... some are outgoing and some are reserved. They're kind of like people."