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Amadeus is exotic piece of Featherstone Winery’s bird control program

of Featherstone Winery’s bird control program


April 15, 2008
By Jim Meyers

Topics

Grape growers often take the
family dog with them on regular walks through the vineyards. But at
Featherstone Winery in Vineland, Bocci, a Jack Russell nicknamed the
“Niagara Escarpment Grape Hound,” plays second fiddle to a Harris hawk
named Amadeus.

bird1
bird2
Louise Engel and Amadeus: The fact that he could be around scares birds away. Photos by Jim Meyers. 

Grape growers often take the family dog with them on regular walks through the vineyards. But at Featherstone Winery in Vineland, Bocci, a Jack Russell nicknamed the “Niagara Escarpment Grape Hound,” plays second fiddle to a Harris hawk named Amadeus.

“Things get really quiet,” Louise Engel says about her regular early morning and evening walks in the vineyard with both Bocci and Amadeus. That’s when birds are most likely to stop by to snack on ripe grapes.

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Amadeus hops from post to post along the headlands while Bocci flushes out prey. Starlings and grackels sound alarm calls and black birds flock to pursue him, but they quickly leave the area for safer ground. That makes Amadeus an effective, albeit exotic, form of bird control in a program that includes traditional bird bangers that go off like a cannon, squawk boxes that emit bird distress calls, and netting to protect the sweet, late-harvest icewine grapes. 

“It’s not the toll he takes on birds that makes him effective, it’s the fact he’s liable to be around that scares birds away,” Louise said.

Last year, his first year on the job, Amadeus caught eight birds and most of those were in September and October when the birds are drawn to the ripe grapes. Up until August 26 this year, he had 12 confirmed kills in what has been a growing season with more bird
pressure.

“That’s because of the large crop failure (elsewhere) caused by winter injury,” Louise believes.

A federal licence to hunt migratory birds restricts her to the 23 acres of winery property. An adjoining large bushlot provides nesting sites for birds like robins and starlings that she considers to be “a disease,” like a fungus, as well as a place for Amadeus to go and gorge himself once he’s made a strike.  For that reason, he has bells on his legs so he can be found.

“He’s not a pet and will always fear me,” she says about her not-too-faithful hunting companion who only comes “to the glove” when hunger overcomes fear of his handler. It’s a relationship that’s based on food and body weight and not reward and punishment.

The “Ford pickup” of falconry
“If Amadeus is overweight, he won’t be interested in hunting,” she said. So he’s weighed each morning to determine his “attitude” towards hunting that day: “Ten grams (one-third of an ounce) makes a lot of difference.”

His hunting weight is a trim 560 grams (19.6 oz.), but while on winter vacation, he balloons up to 760 grams (26.6 oz.) dining on generous portions of raw chicken and whole quail.

“Harris hawks are the Ford pickup of falconry. They’re not fast and sexy, but reliable and will get you there,” she told fellow growers at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in February. “Cooper hawks are the Lamborghini model,” Louise added.

It was the first public appearance for Amadeus (Latin for “the love of,” Louise said) who was hatched in the African Lion Safari bird breeding program in Rockton, near Guelph.  He turned two in June and is expected to live 15 to 20 years in captivity, which is far longer than the five to seven year life expectancy for Harris hawks in their native habitat in South America, extending as far north as Mexico.

While other growers may have been intrigued with the thought of having a falcon on staff, no other apprentice falconers have come forward. It may be because falconry is, first and foremost, a dedicated hobby for Louise who is in the final year of a two-year apprenticeship program to join the ranks of the 60 trained falconers in Ontario. 

It’s a commitment that requires as much dedication as milking cows twice a day and one she’s comfortable with, having raised a horse of her own growing up on a hobby farm in nearby Smithville.

Smallest full-time winery
And it’s a hobby with a practical application in the vineyards of the winery she co-owns with her husband David Johnson, a University of Guelph graduate, who was the 2003 Grape Growers of Ontario grape king. 

The couple ran a specialty food shop in Guelph for 17 years. Over that time, they developed an appreciation for good wine and Dave joined an amateur wine making club. He came to Niagara to get grape juice and it was then they set a course to open their own winery by buying property on the bench area of the Niagara Escarpment in 1999. 

They use fungicides but not chemical pesticides. Instead, mixtures like fish oil and garlic spray are used for insect control and beneficial ladybugs are released to eat aphids.

“We don’t want to ingest any more chemicals than we have to,” Louise said, pointing out that the older farmhouse they live in (and doubles as a wine boutique and tasting room) is surrounded by the vineyards.

Featherstone, Ontario’s smallest full-time winery, doesn’t have wines listed in the LCBO but sells on site and by direct sales to homes and restaurants. It received a promotional shot in the arm when it opened to the public three years ago and was featured on a CBC Radio phone-in show by wine expert Conrad Edgebeck.