At first, Sebastopol area resident Nancy Martin and her husband did not know what to make of the frequent booming bird noises they suddenly started hearing in mid-August.
Neither did their neighbors.
“We were walking around the neighborhood and we’d run into people, and they’d say, ‘What’s that noise we’re hearing?’ ” Martin said. “And we would say, ‘I don’t know, maybe hunting.’ ”
But the sounds were going off at very frequent intervals — sometimes as much as 20 per minute — and could last for 13 hours a day, Martin estimated. So hunting-related gunshots didn’t sound quite right.
Then a neighbor emailed with the most likely answer: bird cannons. Vineyards employ the noise-making devices powered by propane to scare away birds that may seek to prey on their valuable crop as harvest approaches.
The use of bird cannons is nothing new, particularly in agriculture-heavy Sonoma County, but Martin, who said she has lived in her neighborhood for 30 years, could not recall ever hearing them before.
“Sometimes, it would be back to back: you’d hear ‘boom’ and then another ‘boom’ right away,” Martin said. “My dog seriously was just shaking.”
Concerns expressed by Martin and several other residents in west Sonoma County highlight a familiar tension in agricultural areas: Growers, empowered by the county’s right-to-farm ordinance, are entitled to protect their crops, but local residents sometimes feel farming disruptions interfere with their quality of life.
John Balletto, owner of Balletto Vineyards and Winery in the Russian River Valley, said his vineyard has not used bird cannons this year because it has not felt very dramatic “bird pressure.” But he knows how bad it can get in other years: Balletto recalled one instance some 15 years ago when he had a 2-acre block of pinot grigio “picked clean” by waxwings.
The damage can add up quickly. A typical vineyard in Sonoma County yields about 3 tons of grapes per acre, or a crop valued at about $7,650 per acre at last year’s average price, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Balletto acknowledged that complaints from neighbors can arise, and he recommended taking an equally neighborly approach to resolving those conflicts.
“If you have a neighbor that has some concerns, just go have a conversation with that person,” Balletto said. “We’re still able to farm and do stuff, but it’s also important to try to have good neighbor relations.”
Cannons are not the only tool vineyards have at their disposal to defend against birds like starlings and waxwings. One popular option is bird netting, which growers can place over their crops to shield them from winged pests, but that can be a costly and labor-intensive route to take. Balletto said his vineyard is using bird alarms, which emit noises of predatory birds, and has found them to be more effective than cannons so far.
Still others employ actual birds of prey — falcons — to scare off hungry flocks.
With Wine Country’s harvest season gearing up, Lisa Correia, Sonoma County’s assistant agricultural commissioner, said last week that her office had yet to receive any complaints about bird cannons. But she said the commissioner’s office generally works closely with residents and businesses to resolve such issues.
“If somebody isn’t using (bird cannons) properly, then we can usually talk to the grower and get them maybe better educated or informed,” Correia said. “That usually helps create less of a chance of a nuisance being created.”
Solano County officials last year passed an ordinance regulating use of noise-making devices such as bird cannons for agricultural purposes. The ordinance spells out a number of requirements for the devices, including that they cannot be used more than 11 times per hour from 30 minutes after sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset.
Additionally, the ordinance allows for no more than one noise-making device for every 5 acres of land with crops needing protection from damage by birds or other wildlife. Devices within 50 feet of the property line need to be relocated at least 200 feet every four days, and they can’t be directed at residences closer than 400 yards away without rotating automatically and erecting a “sound baffle” between the residence and the device.
While Sonoma County does not have such an ordinance for noise-making devices, it does have recommended guidelines for propane cannons. A copy of the guidelines provided by Correia warns cannons “can and will annoy nearby residents and domestic animals,” and that if a field is surrounded by houses or has a “sensitive neighbor,” cannons may not be a wise choice, pointing to netting, falconry and “general harassment” as other options.
The guidelines further note that birds can rapidly adjust to the noise of cannons and recommend ways that growers should position cannons to maximize their effectiveness. The guidelines also say growers can mitigate noise by putting a plywood backstop behind cannons; warn growers not to use them before sunrise or after sunset; and suggest that the location of cannons be changed frequently and the interval between discharges vary.
Correia said the guidelines have been around for many years, in which time complaints about noise devices at harvest time have declined.
“Frankly, they’ve become a little less relevant because we don’t get as many calls these days,” Correia said. “It’s become less of an issue.”
The same may not be true for Napa County this year. Greg Clark, Napa County’s agricultural commissioner, said his office had heard more complaints about bird cannons than in the past few years, but he was not sure why. Clark said his county does not have a specific ordinance or written guidelines about bird cannons.
Clark said Napa, like Sonoma County, generally takes an educational approach to resolving disputes. That may mean, for instance, informing growers their cannons are firing too often.
Clark said he did not want to minimize the impact birds can have on crops, recalling one instance when a grower’s cannon was firing about every 20 seconds.
“While we stood there and talked, he would see the starlings flying around, and this person would say, ‘See the birds?’ ” Clark said. “You could have that thing firing off every second and the birds would still be there. They’ve gotten used to it.”
Still, Clark said some neighbors also may not fully appreciate what it means to move into an agricultural area, where disruptions, to a certain extent, come with the territory.
Balletto made a similar point.
“At the end of the day, there might be times when we disagree on things,” he said. “But if we don’t bring a crop in, nothing’s sustainable.”
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