On a recent morning in late October, master falconer Alina Blankenship strides purposefully through rows of vines sagging with full bunches of grapes, yelling Goose! in a high-pitched tone. The sky is overcast, the clouds heavy with rain and, for a moment, it’s entirely empty—until a flock of starlings flutter up and scatter. Then, with spread wings that complement the sky’s overlapping shades of gray, Goose emerges from the mist and swoops down to catch a morsel of raw meat that Blankenship has tossed into the air.
Goose, an eight-year-old barbary saker hybrid falcon, is following Blankenship’s directions about where to go. Their task? To keep vineyards safe from Hitchcockian swarms of migratory birds—robins, jays, that flock of starlings, waxwings, blackbirds and more—that can destroy an entire grape harvest in an hour. “They are like the Orcs of Mordor,” Blankenship says of her mélange of predatory birds. “They let the target birds know, ‘Thou shalt not pass.’”
Blankenship is one of the few professional falconers in the country. She is striking—tall, with freckles, piercing eyes and a fondness for the color black. Her authoritative, regal bearing is only accented by the falcon or hawk she can be seen carrying on her gloved fist. In 2021, she founded Sky Guardian Falconry, which provides abatement services to vineyards (and other types of clients) in Oregon during the time between veraison and harvest, when the fruit is ripe enough to tempt rapacious birds but not yet ripe enough to pick for winemaking. Abatement, in this case, means that the raptors are trained to scare off the pest birds, rather than hunt and kill them. When working a vineyard site, Blankenship stays from dawn until dusk for as many days or weeks as needed, releasing her birds, one at a time, to patrol the skies and stand guard. “Some of our growers, they wouldn’t have a harvest without a falconer,” she says.
An infinite array of things can threaten grapes in a vineyard. Too much rain. Not enough rain. Temperatures that are too hot. Temperatures that are too cold. Temperatures that are too hot or too cold at the wrong times. Mites. Frost. Fires. Weeds. Hail. Insects. Varmints. And voracious flocks of birds that can number in the tens of thousands, waiting for their chance to pillage. In the past, major alignments of bird migrations have caused growers in Oregon’s premier winegrowing region, the Willamette Valley, to lose well over half of their crop.
Because of how late the grapes ripened this year, the “bird pressure” was poised to be particularly high, leading well-known wineries like Adelsheim to bring Sky Guardian on board. “This year, our season was running about three weeks behind and I decided the falconer route seemed like it was worth trying,” says Adelsheim’s vineyard manager, Kelli Gregory. “Using natural predators to control a pest versus buying plastic bird netting to do the same job seemed like the obvious answer.”
“I’m a strategist, I’m a quarterback, I’m a trainer and I’m a coach. Day and night, I have birds with me. You have to be all in if you commit to being a falconer.”
Most vineyards in the United States handle bird pressure with tools like netting, air cannons and bird screamers, which mimic the sounds of birds of prey. Netting is effective, but can be labor-intensive and pricey, while air cannons and bird screamers can only accomplish so much. As Blankenship puts it, why mimic the sound of a predator when you can use the real thing?
“Mimicry does not work,” she says. “Squawk boxes don’t work. Air cannons are loud, so it’s like a dinner bell that calls the flocks in, because they only use them when the fruit is ripe. The difference between us and everyone else is, we are not bluffing.”
According to an article in Living Bird citing research by Sara Kross of Columbia University, “the presence of falcons in a vineyard was associated with a 95 percent reduction in the number of grapes removed by birds and a 55 percent reduction in the number of grapes pecked,” saving farmers up to $326 per hectare (or $132 per acre). Sky Guardian’s services cost between $600 and $1,000 a day, depending on the needs of the vineyard and its size, and one falconer can work several hundred acres at a time.
“We’re expensive, but we gain efficiency each year, once we’ve told the pest birds it’s a bad neighborhood,” says Blankenship. “If you walk past a junkyard with a Doberman and he barks every day, you still don’t go in there.”
Blankenship works in tandem with fellow falconer Justin Robertson, whose business is called MaxYield Falconry; the duo has around 20 raptors in their mews. On a vineyard assignment, Blankenship typically brings five to eight birds—a mix of Harris’s hawks, aplomado falcons, peregrine falcons, saker falcons and gyrfalcons—each with their own names, strengths, personalities and preferences. Rogue, a six-month-old Peruvian Harris’s hawk, is an eccentric goofball who is still maturing, while Agave, a three-year-old aplomado falcon, is not a morning bird and generally prefers to snooze in the car until noon. Goose is a consummate professional, a princess with opinions who dislikes getting her wings wet, and does not, according to Blankenship, suffer fools. “She’ll let me know if I do something wrong,” she says.
Blankenship decides which bird to fly at which time depending on the needs of the vineyard and the situation on the ground—or in the air. For instance, aplomados are better suited for flying within the rows of vineyard vines, while peregrines and sakers are better for “border collie-ing” large flocks in the air above the vines. Harris’s hawks are good for keeping the treelines clear of birds that are “staging,” or gathering together before they move. “It’s all about finding the right golf club for the swing,” says Blankenship.
She also brings along Bramble, a field English cocker spaniel who runs between the vines to flush game that’s lurking down low. In all weather conditions, Blankenship spends the days circling the perimeter and walking through rows as she guides the raptors’ flights, aiming to give the pest birds no quarter. Each of her birds is equipped with multiple indicators—GPS, radio telemetry and, for Harris’s hawks, bells—so she can track their whereabouts.
“I’m a strategist, I’m a quarterback, I’m a trainer and I’m a coach,” she says. “Day and night, I have birds with me. You have to be all in if you commit to being a falconer.”
Falconry is ancient, although just how ancient, no one knows exactly. Some experts believe the practice originated between 4000 B.C. and 6000 B.C. in Mongolia, while others cite origins in Mesopotamia. By 2000 B.C., though, falconry was established across Central Asia and the Middle East. It made its way to Europe around the sixth century and endured through the following centuries as a pastime of royalty. In 16th-century England, a strict social hierarchy dictated who could fly which birds: Only a king could fly a gyrfalcon; a duke, a rock falcon; an earl, a peregrine; a yeoman, a goshawk; and a servant, a kestrel. In 2021, UNESCO added falconry to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list, and linguistic links to falconry are ubiquitous: hoodwinked references the leather hood that covers a bird’s eyes to keep them calm; a haggard is an adult bird caught in the wild. The list goes on: waiting with bated breath, under your thumb, wrapped around your little finger, end of my tether.
“Birds are transactional. They don’t love me, but I give them a good value proposition.”
In essence, falconry is the practice of training a raptor in order to become hunting (or abatement) partners. Weight management is a cornerstone of these efforts. If the bird is fed too much, they have little motivation to hunt (they are “fed up”); if they are fed too little, they may not have the energy required to fly and pursue their quarries. Put simply, by guiding the birds’ behavior with tools like food, hoods and jesses (a thin strap that serves as a tether), a falconer aims to harness their natural predatory inclinations and build a relationship with the bird so they can work together toward their shared aims.
“Birds are transactional,” says Blankenship. “They don’t love me, but I give them a good value proposition.”
Blankenship, who is 51, came to falconry relatively recently. For most of her career, she worked in book publishing and ran the Willamette Writers Conference. Twelve years ago, a friend called Blankenship for help because a bird was trapped in her garage—not because Blankenship was into birds, but because she was someone who projected an aura of competence. She went into the garage, threw her coat over the bird, and brought it into the bathroom, where it sat on her arm. In an effort to identify the bird, she took to the internet. Her first guess was a yellow-eyed merlin falcon, but she ultimately learned it was a junior cougar hawk. In any case, her interest was piqued.
Blankenship discovered that one becomes a falconer through an apprenticeship system. She started showing up at falconry meetups around Oregon, searching for someone to apprentice with. It’s a fairly insular community and making inroads took a while, but Blankenship was determined. Once she had her skills down, she learned through a friend that “this guy”—that would be Robertson—was hiring. A full-time job would enable her to have more touches on the birds, and she decided to pursue professional falconry, licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by the state of Oregon. She loves her job and her days are never boring, but switching careers, especially to something so niche, was a gamble.
“Abatement in the U.S. is in its infancy,” Blankenship says, even though it is gaining momentum as part of the recent push toward regenerative agriculture. “It’s toddling. We’ll go to wine symposiums and people are surprised we even exist.”
In addition to Sky Guardian, Blankenship also founded a nonprofit organization called PERCH, which educates the public about falconry and provides support for wildlife rehabilitation efforts. One of PERCH’s programs is Wings Over Wine, which partners with vineyards to release rehabilitated raptors (including birds who have been orphaned or injured) back into the wild. In spring 2021, Blankenship worked with Adelsheim to release an owl at the Ribbon Springs Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains. She says these releases are a win-win—good for the birds, who are provided with a “safe and profitable” hunting territory, and good for the vineyards, especially if the raptors choose to stick around.
In the early afternoon on that October day, Blankenship calls in Goose, removes her GPS tracker and places her back in her carrier. Rogue, sensing Blankenship’s return to the car, squawks up a storm, while Agave looks on amiably. Just as Blankenship is mulling over which bird to deploy next, she gets a text: The pickers are done. All the grapes that need to be harvested for the season are safely piled in plastic crates and are headed for the cellar. Blankenship is released from duty. As she navigates her gray Toyota Highlander out of the vineyard, she spies a few starlings swirling above and leans on the horn to frighten them off. “I guess I can’t help myself,” she says with a grin.