Grain Farmer Fights Off Swan Invasion with Falcon-Shaped Kites

A farmer in South Iceland is resorting to a unique method to combat a unique threat to his grain crops. RÚV reports that Björgvín Þór Harðarson, a pig and grain farmer in Laxárdalur, is using falcon-shaped kites to scare away the whooper swans that are consuming and causing significant damage to his crops.

Swans are a major threat to grain crops in Iceland but are generally unfazed by farmers’ attempts to ward them off. Björgvín Þór said the birds are definitely the most difficult pests for him to deal with on the farm—and probably the most prolific. When the swans’ numbers are at their peak, he may find as many as 500 swans occupying his fields.

‘When they arrive, it’s just total destruction’

“When they arrive, it’s just total destruction,” he lamented. “If they arrive in a fully mature field in the fall, they’ll walk all over it and eat it and trample all the straw and everything.”

Björgvín Þór has tried many deterrents—including scarecrows and acoustic warning devices, or pingers—but to no avail.

“I was fighting with this swan that was attacking both my barley in the fall and wheat in the spring,” he explained. “Then I tried one of these kites that I’d been told about, and it worked like a charm.”

Falcon Crop Protection, FB

Kites mimic the flight of birds of prey

The kites that Björgvín Þór uses are shaped like falcons and designed to glide in a pattern that mimics the flight of birds of prey. They are used widely within the wine industry as an environmentally friendly and effective form of “bird abatement.” They can also be used on fish farms and to drive away unwanted gulls and crows in urban areas, among other uses.

But as well as the kites work, Björgvín Þór is still careful to use them only sparingly so the swans will not grow accustomed to them or eventually see through the ruse.

He first used the kites in the spring when his wheat crops were growing but has now taken them down because there’s no need at the moment. He’ll fly them again in the fall, during the harvest, and hopes they’ll be enough to keep his voracious whooper nemeses at bay.

Chicks in 18 Gyrfalcon Nests in Northeast Iceland This Summer

Gyrfalcon chicks

Eighteen pairs of gyrfalcons fledged successfully in Northeast Iceland this summer, RÚV reports. According to ornithologist Ólafur K. Nielsen, the gyrfalcon, classified as “species vulnerable,” has been in gradual decline over the past few years, although it is not in crisis.

“Species vulnerable”

Ólafur K. Nielsen, an ornithologist with the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has spent the past 41 summers researching falcon territories in Northeast Iceland. Ólafur recently returned from his annual research trip, where he visited all of the 84 territories to check occupancy and survey the population. Fifty territories were occupied this summer.

The gyrfalcon is classified as “species vulnerable” according to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History. Its population goes hand to hand with the number of ptarmigans, for the two species are completely intertwined. As Ólafur noted in an interview with this magazine ins 2019, “researching gyrfalcons is impossible without researching ptarmigans and vice versa.”

“The count from this spring shows that the population is in decline, which probably has something to do with a decline in the number of ptarmigan,” Ólafur stated in an interview with RÚV this weekend. “The population rises and falls in rather extreme swings, vacillating by as much as a factor of ten or twenty in the space of a few years.”

A slow decline between years

The gyrfalcon population usually reaches its apex two to three years after the ptarmigan population peaks, which last occurred in ca. 2018 or 2019: “The population within the research area has reached a zenith of 65 pairs, but now we’re seeing somewhere between 45 and 50. It’s been a slow decline over the past few years,” Ólafur commented.

The number of gyrfalcons in the country peaked in 1966 and 1986, with around 65 pairs of falcons occupying territories in Northeast Iceland. This number has declined gradually, along with the ptarmigan population, which could be cause for worry: “The gyrfalcon is on a species vulnerable list,” Ólafur stated. “It’s a small population, comprising perhaps two to three thousand falcons in the entire country. It isn’t in crisis. But its future could be determined by the future of the ptarmigan; as long as we’ve got a healthy number of ptarmigan, we’ll have falcons.”

Despite 50 territories being occupied, gyrfalcons only fledged successfully in 18 of them. “The lion’s share of the pairs were sterile, and some of the pairs who attempted to reproduce were unsuccessful,” Ólafur observed. “These birds were laying eggs very late, which means that they bear fewer eggs. The number of eggs in the nests was low, which is why we’re seeing so few chicks at the end of the summer. But the conditions were auspicious, so those falcons who did reproduce this summer raised their young quite well.”

Falco Rusticolus

Gyrfalcon researcher Ólafur Nielsen

“The gyrfalcon’s whole life revolves around the ptarmigan,” ornithologist Ólafur Nielsen tells me as I sit in the back of his pickup truck. We’re navigating a trail through spiky black lava in the northeast on the longest day of the year. At his side is his son and namesake, Ólafur Nielsen Junior, known as Óli to distinguish him from his father. He’s been accompanying his father on his falcon trips since he was 10 years old and can’t imagine a summer without them. In order to get to follow the father-son duo on their trip for a day, I had to apply for a special permit from the Environment Agency of Iceland, months in advance. The purpose of our trip is to visit two or three gyrfalcon nests to mark and measure the nestlings. Even approaching gyrfalcon nests in Iceland is illegal, and only a few researchers and scientists are exempted. Ólafur is one of Iceland’s most notable falcon scholars.

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