Bird control: protecting vineyards from bird damage with lasers

Earlier this year lasers provided successful results as a bird deterrent at a vineyard in Sonoma County, California. Callum Tyndall investigates how the technology works and the role it is set to play as vineyards become more technologically-driven

The laser bird deterrent technology takes advantage of a bird’s natural instincts; birds perceive an approaching laser beam as a predator and take flight to seek safety when the laser beam passes by. Installed at Griffin’s Lair vineyard in Sonoma County, a 21-acre vineyard that had suffered from bird damage, the technology is estimated to have saved the vineyard owner in excess of $25,000 decreased crop loss and bird nuisance by 99.8%. Although this was the first example of the technology’s use in California, it has previously been used by vineyards in Canada, Argentina and Australia. The question is whether we should expect it to become a norm for all vineyards in the future. 

Bird problems: grape damage and yield-loss 

According to 2007 research by MKF Research LLC, the United States wine, grape and grape products industries contributes more than $162bn a year to the economy. Despite this success, grape growers are losing millions each year due to bird problems; 2013 research showed that California had losses of $49.09m in grape damage, while Washington lost $12.89m. Additionally, California currently has a yield-loss percentage of 2.9% per year in grape growing due to bird damage.  Unfortunately, though there are measures currently used to aid with bird damage they have proved to be less effective than required.

Jim Griffin, owner of Griffin’s Lair, had been spending $25,000 a year on netting and labour costs in order to counter the bird damage. However, not only was the installation and maintenance of the netting labour-intensive but there are several disadvantages to the technique. Areas where there are large amounts of birds perching or nesting will not see much assistance from the netting as the birds will still be able to get under the nets, and the nets can also make it difficult for workers to complete tasks such as pruning and fertilising. 

With Bird Control Group’s help the grape industry in California can strengthen their top position

The laser deterrent provided by Bird Control Group is in use by thousands of customers globally but Griffin’s Lair is the first deployment for California wine grapes. Not only has the technology saved the vineyard the massive annual cost of netting but has proven distinctly more effective with its near total elimination of bird-related problems. Given that the technology used also does not allow birds to become used to the deterrent, it is also likely to prove an effective long-term solution.  

Chief executive Steinar Henskes said: “I am proud of the savings Bird Control Group realised at the Griffin’s Lair vineyard. California is one of the largest grape-growing regions in the world and with our help the grape industry in California can strengthen their top position.”

Avian adversaries: Does nature present a greater opportunity than technology?

Although Bird Control Group‘s laser solution is a high tech answer to the nuisance that birds provide, farmers elsewhere are resorting to more natural means to counter the problem of bird damage. In a recent paper for the Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment journal, a team of researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) found that farmers were able to reduce the damage to their crops done by birds such as robins and sparrows by introducing predatory species to their land. While the laser system attempts to trick the birds into a prey response, the farmers studied have gone back to the source. 

Catherine Lindell, an MSU biologist and lead author of the paper, said to Environmental Health News, “There are species out there that, particularly when they live in agricultural landscapes, are providing services for us, and sometimes we’re not even aware of them. The more we understand about these services they provide, the more we might be able to enhance those services by giving them the resources they need.”

There are species out there that are providing services for us, and sometimes we’re not even aware of them

In one of the case studies highlighted by Lindell and her team, scientists introduced a threatened, native falcon species to New Zealand vineyards. These falcons drove off 80% of the non-native pest birds and reduced the amount of grapes removed and damaged by 95%, saving some of the farmers in excess of $300 per hectare.  Not only does such a tactic save farmers money, and require almost no management on their part, but can provide an ecological benefit in reducing pesticide use and providing a safe living space for native species that may otherwise be struggling.  

Another study attempted to make similar savings in Australia, with a team from Charles Sturt University placing wooden perches in vineyards to attract larger birds that would scare off the pest species. While the experiment failed to attract predators such as falcons, it did draw almost 40,000 magpie visits over four months. Although not as successful as the New Zealand falcons, the sections of vineyard with the perches did receive 5% less grape damage than those without. 

Image courtesy of SasaStock /  Shutterstock

Autonomic solutions: Optimal balance between commercial interests and the environmental welfare

While Bird Control Group’s solution is inherently technologically focused, it is built not only on natural principles but with intent to cause no harm to animals or the environment. Alternative solutions have not only been shown to be less effective than the laser system, but it is worth noting that the Bird Control Group’s range of laser-based solutions are designed with a sustainability in mind that aims to establish the optimal balance between commercial interests and the welfare of birds; one of their products has even been recognised by the World Wildlife Fund.  

The Autonomic system designed for vineyards is a fully automated system that’s laser applies a combination of highly precise optics, filtering and light frequencies to produce a beam that is perceived as a physical threat by any approaching birds, causing them to disperse. The dynamism of the system also ensures that birds do not return as they will continue to consider the area unsafe. Able, in optimal conditions, to disperse birds at up to 2400m, the system is also impressive for its minimal environmental impact design and the fact that it can even be equipped with a solar charging system.

“This is so much better than scaring birds with falcons,” says Justin Meduri, a farmer who uses the Autonomic system. “We had to work so hard to keep the birds away. Last year, it was one of the years with the highest bird damage. We had a lot of birds in the farm; now with the Autonomics we don’t even have to worry about it – we simply have no issue anymore.”

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