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Archive for August 20th, 2009

There are many great universal questions:   Will he respect me in the morning?   Why is the sky blue?   The list goes on and on.

But one universal question which only occurs to you if you happen to have a vineyard or some grapes that you’d like to eat is this one:   How do you keep the birds out of your grapes?  You could add a few corollary questions, like “How do you keep the birds out of the strawberries?  cherries?  apples?  tomatoes?”  Oh, and “How do you keep deer out of your grapes?” — a question I will not go into here, but which has just as many answers as the bird question, ranging from hanging Irish Spring soap and clattering pie pans to hiring a guard dog.

The answer to the bird question is not simple.   Millions of dollars are made on a yearly basis as gardeners, vineyard owners, and orchard growers attempt to keep birds out of their produce.   There are fake snakes, flash tape, squawkers, floating hawks, big floating balls that look like alien faces, fake owls, fake cats.   On and on and on the list goes.

We have tried various things.   One year I tried using flash tape on the plums.  That worked for a while.   Fortunately the plums ripened quickly and I was able to pick them before the birds decided it was just part of the landscape and ate too many of the fruits.  The flash tape did not work the second year.  The place where we bought our bird netting this year doesn’t even sell it.  On their site, they state that they stopped offering it for sale when one of their customers mailed them a bird’s nest (obviously used) that had been constructed almost completely out of flash tape.

I have been to blueberry farms where the proprietors have tried using everything from fake snakes, floating “alien heads” to the squawker.   The squawker is a particularly nasty way of trying to scare off birds.   It is a loudspeaker system which plays a recording of a bird that is making a loud and dreadful distress call.   The bird species used for the recording is a starling, because apparently all birds listen when the starling alarm goes off.   At least they do until they have heard it go off nineteen thousand times in two days, and then they decide that it is for the birds and ignore it.

However, the proprietors will still play this extremely annoying and deafening recording in their blueberry patch, because they paid a lot of money for it and someone told them it will work.   What this actually results in is that the blueberries near the loud speaker array do not get picked, because while the noise does not scare the birds much it certainly makes it very painful to be in the vicinity of the speakers.    Jim and I learned to bring our ear plugs and pick right under the loud speakers, where the picking is extremely good since people without ear protection can’t stand to stay there for more than a couple of minutes, if that.

While I have seen people react with great fear when they see the patently fake inflatable snakes festooned about the berry bushes, the birds know they are bogus.  I have seen robins perched on top of fake snakes, fake cats and fake owls.   I have seen birds playing aerial acrobatics with the flying streamers powered by electric fans.   In other words, these sorts of measures have limited success, and in my opinion are probably a big waste of money.

What does work very well is a physical barrier between the birds and the fruit.   For several years, we used bale wrap as a method of keeping birds away from the grapes.   If you read the post I wrote about it, you will detect a note of triumph in it that I can now attest was premature.

Let me just reiterate a point.   Birds like grapes.   They like them a lot.  They are devious and wily and motivated and they have ALL DAY to figure out how to elude your ploys designed to keep them out of the fruit they lust after.

Apparently, on the menu of bird choices for food, grapes are at the very top.  Wine grapes are just a gourmet variety of their favorite food.

Anyway, suffice it to say that the brown thrashers figured out that they could walk up to the bale net, insert their beak through the holes and then wiggle their way through the net into the row.  The bale wrap net is not tied to itself in any way, and the holes can expand and contract sufficiently to allow a motivated bird to slip through.   After the thrashers figured it out, the robins and blue jays and sparrows realized they could do it to.  Now, it kept whole flocks from alighting, but we were still losing way more grapes than we really liked.

Additionally, the rabbits would freak out and crash right through the netting, tearing big holes in it which allowed,  wait for it, oh yes, the BIRDS to get in.

So this year we bought commercial bird net which has 3/4″ mesh and is reusable.   We got it from Barehand Vineyard Bird Netting, and it is just as easy to deploy as they claimed.  It is also easy to un-deploy, and very resistant to tearing since it is manufactured using a lock stitch.

This is how the vineyard looks with the netting.

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In that photo, we were preparing to remove it from the row because we were set to pick the grapes, so the sides are resting on the ground.   Before that, we had the bottom gathered up and attched firmly to the bottom wire of our trellising system.  This effectively encases the vines in a tube of netting and allows the rabbits to run around without crashing through the net.  It also discourages the squirrels from trying to chew through it.   We use clothespins to attach the net to the trellis.

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One piece of this netting is sufficiently large to enclose the whole vine, and the whole thing comes in one very long strip (500 feet long) so you can cut it to fit each row.   We figure this net will serve us for at least 10 years, so the cost per year will only be around $30.

However, all is not hunky dory even with such a marvelous product.  Notice the white arch in the first picture.   You see, a heavy bird like a grackle or a robin can land on the netting and still pick any grapes within its reach through the net.  This is especially a bad problem in grape varieties that form their clusters near the top of the canopy.   Two of our varieties do this.   It didn’t take long for Jim to notice this:

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Yeah, the birds were eating the grapes through the net.   Damn.

So, the arch system was devised to keep the net above the grapes.  We used the hoops that we already had that we use to support row cover in the vegetable garden, and have for over 10 years.   These are made from 1/2″ C-PVC water pipe (the hot water version, which is thinner and more flexible), and seem to be indestructible.    A system of wire attachments was added to keep the hoops oriented correctly over the vines.    Again, the trellising system was used as an anchor.  The little plastic dixie cup is placed over the top of the metal post that supports the trellis system so that the post will not make holes in the net.

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Even this was not completely effective.   A really heavy and clever bird can land on the arch, walk down the net and get enough slack to reach through to get the grapes within reach.    So, the last line of defense was a strip of shade cloth about two feet wide that was draped over the top of the net where the grapes were too close.  You can see a piece of it on the ground in the background of the first picture where it had been removed before we started un-deploying the net.

And that DID do the trick.

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For now.    For future reports on how to keep birds out of your grapes, stay tuned.    I am not willing to believe that we have completely succeeded forever, having been foiled by the damned  effing wonderful birds before.

I have stated previously that I think the only way that would really work would be to have a team of about a dozen little kids who spent all day from dawn to dusk playing loudly in the vineyard.   NO quiet tea parties, only loud and active games of tag and war allowed.

I think someone needs to start working on a force field shield like they have at Deep Space Nine.   That would probably work.

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