Horizon with flock of birds in the background and laser in the foreground

Zapping the Bird Problem

Idaho vintners use high-tech lasers to scare birds away from wine grapes

Lex Nelson

From a bird’s eye view, there’s a good chance southern Idaho’s Sunnyslope Wine Trail looks more like a miles-long buffet table than the proverbial patchwork quilt. That’s because for robins and starlings, ripe wine grapes make the perfect snack, particularly during harvest season—a problem vintners like Greg Koenig of Koenig Vineyards have spent increasing amounts of time and money battling.

“It seems like the bird pressure has been getting worse over the last few years,” said Koenig, noting that the damage peaks each day during dawn and dusk, which adds another layer of complexity to the problem.

Vintners have used nets, reflective mylar tape and noisy cannons to put the scavengers off, but each system has its drawbacks. The nets are costly, difficult to store and easily damaged; the tape is only effective during mid-day, when the sun is bright; and the cannons are perhaps worst of all. The loud noise they make annoys the neighbors, and Koenig said that after a while the birds get so used to them they start to seem like they’re mocking him.

“[The birds] just sit on top of them and look at you like, ‘Whatever,’” he said ruefully.

Yet difficult problems beg creative solutions, and it looks like Koenig may have found his: a pole-mounted laser that traces light patterns over the grapes at dawn and dusk, keeping the birds at bay.

“We were a little bit skeptical at first because the birds are smart and I thought that they would get used to it or it wouldn’t work, but looking back on it at the end of the season it was a tremendous success. It was amazing how no birds came near the vineyards,” Koenig said.

The laser can be programmed with a laptop, and emits a tennis ball-sized beam of light that scans the vineyard when the birds are most active, covering roughly 15 acres.

“That little bit of movement kind of wigs the birds out, they don’t like it, and they realize something’s not right—like it’s a predator or a hawk or something,” Koenig explained.

Solar panel and laser installed over Idaho vineyard

At $10,000 each, the lasers aren’t cheap, but Koenig said they’re still a big savings over netting, which can cost up to $30,000 per year to buy, store and apply. Even so, he didn’t invest in the equipment right away. After Mike Williamson of Williamson Vineyards mentioned the concept, which he’d read about in Good Fruit Grower magazine, Koenig did his research before cashing in for three lasers: one for his own vineyard and two more for J Victor Vineyards, which he helps manage.

Koenig ran the lasers from the end of August through Nov. 9, when harvest season wrapped up. Now, with the lasers turned off and moved indoors, he’s already starting to see birds come back to the vineyards, looking for grapes the harvest may have overlooked. He’s also busy fielding calls from other growers looking into installing the technology next year, all of whom have his blessing.

“The thing is [the lasers are] quiet, they’re safe, they don’t annoy the neighbors—they’re totally unobtrusive. You don’t even notice it’s there until somebody points it out,” he said.

Bird Control Group’s Agrilaser Bird Lasers are currently available to Idaho growers through Oregon Vineyard Supply.

photo credit: Oregon Vineyard Supply and Bird Control Group