The cherries are ripe for picking here in the Quincy Valley, but there is one problem facing the harvest — birds.
The pretty robins, starlings and house finches love to peck at and eat the ripening fruit to feed to their young. Gas cannons that are shot off in the orchards scare them away for a time until the birds figure out no harm will really come to them and then they eventually return.
One man has a way to solve the problem, and his name is Jimmy Almaguer. He is a falconer who comes highly prepared for this fruit fight. He brings his Irish setter, his Harris hawks and several falcons to run the pesky birds out of the orchards. This technique is called bird abatement.
“The starlings, robins and finches are a nuisance to the orchard. Falcons flying overhead pose a threat to them. By pressuring the birds with the falcons we get them out of the orchard,” said Almaguer.
He follows the harvest seasons from California to Oregon and Washington as the fruit ripens. He pulls a trailer around from one spot to another and often works long hours. By early July, he had racked up 56 consecutive days. He does it all for the love of his falcons.
When he was about 17 years old, he took in his first bird, an American kestrel (sparrow hawk). The bird was wounded from a fall out of a tree and Almaguer took it in and nursed it back to health.
“I didn’t know much about hawks or falcons then, so the bird flew off. I went to the library to read more and learn more about falconry and how to train them. Some of it you learn as you go and through trial and error,” he said.
Almaguer’s hobby turned into a passion. He tested and trained to be a falconer and obtained a Federal Fish and Game License to raise and train working falcons and hawks. He mentioned that it takes a few months to train a bird the basics, but that it takes a full year to fine-tune that training.
He emphasized that to become a falconer is not an easy thing to do. There are many steps to take up the ladder of this particular skill set. First, anyone interested must become an apprentice to a falconer. Then they must take a test and obtain a general license for falconry. The final step is to take another test to become a master falconer, like Almaguer. As far as he knows, he is only one of about 60 people on the West Coast who are using the working hawks and falcons for bird abatement the way he does.
He can use his birds of prey in many different ways, such as clearing birds out of the sanitary landfills and off of air strips. He has a team of birds that work well together. They are his Harris hawks, Suguaro and Cactus Jack; Pella and Wally, who are Peregrine falcons; and Corkey, his Saker falcon. He keeps them in the air as much as possible. The critical hours are the first two hours after sunrise and the two hours before dusk, when the small birds get hungry and want to fly in to eat the red, juicy cherries on the outer edges of the orchards.
Almaguer will travel around in nomadic fashion, working with his birds in different orchards until the last day of the harvest. “It is really pretty effective. It is also a very green thing to do. It’s good for the environment,” Almaguer said.