Bring on the Raptors: Vineyard Team Partners on Environmental Study

One way our operations teams around the world work to minimize our impact on the environment is by utilizing natural methods of pest control in our vineyards. In 2003, the vineyard operations team at RH Phillips Vineyards in Esparto, California, began installing perches and owl boxes on a large scale to encourage the presence of predatory birds, such as raptors (birds of prey). The birds attracted to these artificial perches and boxes have helped control the population of rodents like voles, gophers and squirrels. Finding this solution successful, the team has continued to increase the use of perches and boxes in the vineyard, and has also installed song bird boxes to help with insect control.

In order to better understand how to be most effective with these efforts, the vineyard team recently worked with Emily Wong, a researcher at the University of California at Davis, on a study of how the placement of perches can influence their effectiveness. Grape growers have long known that raptors use artificial perches, but few studies had been done to confirm which placements and conditions worked best.

“The proximity of our vineyards to UC Davis gives us a unique opportunity to collaborate with a wide range of departments, providing graduate students access to a large track of land to perform their studies,” said Rod Scheaffer, director, vineyard operations, RH Phillips Vineyards. “This project is one of many and the relationship with the university has paid dividends by providing information that helps us improve how we farm.”

The study utilized motion-sensor cameras to capture birds using the perches. Ms. Wong found that not only are artificial perches beneficial to have in a vineyard, but they are consistently used by a wide variety of bird species, both carnivorous and insectivorous. She also determined the ideal surroundings for perches in a vineyard, and that information can help growers be more effective with perch placement. Raptors and other birds use the perches regardless of where they are located, but the perches are used more often, and are more effective, in areas high in elevation with few or no trees.

“This study made us aware of the unique diversity of raptors using our perches,” said Ricky Mendoza, associate vineyard manager, RH Phillips Vineyards. “It definitely encouraged us to continue adding more perches to our vineyard.”

Above: A dark morph ferruginous hawk (left) and golden eagle photographed during the study.

The vineyard team also engaged members of the community in this sustainability initiative, working with a local Boy Scout troop to make all of the owl and bird boxes.

“Sustainability is not just a word, or something we do because we have too,” said Keith Horn, vice president, vineyard operations. “It is truly a way of life across all our vineyards, intricately interwoven into our fine wines.”

This partnership with UC Davis is a great example of how our operations teams around the world work with experts in academia to improve our operations.

One last note – the RH Phillips team even managed to incorporate reuse into their efforts. The perches are made from pieces of wine barrel oak staves.