Last spring and summer we noticed a pair of red-tailed hawks almost daily on our farm and came to realize they were nesting in a secluded small woodlot near an old pond nearby. As the blueberry season approached, we noted that one of the hawks would frequently perch on a power line wire that ran overhead of our main blueberry field. The old power line is no longer in service. In previous years, that line had served as a perch for starlings and also for songbirds before they invaded the blueberries.
This field has not been netted, but in past years we have had reasonably good bird control by using randomly spaced, randomly rotating recordings of six common bird distress calls that include starlings and even a hawk call. Fearing this noise would drive our perching hawks away and perhaps disturb their nesting, we decided to do nothing to aggravate our “real” bird-scare deterrent.
Amazingly, starlings and songbirds of all breeds avoided our blueberry fields like the plague prior to and during harvest season! Our U-Pick schedule was always daily, 7 a.m. to 12 noon except on Sundays. “Our” hawks seemed to adapt to the fact that the afternoons were always theirs to hunt around our fields or just to perch and preen undisturbed near our fields.
This made us wonder how we and other growers could attract hawks by creating suitable habitat for these birds of prey who provided us with such a superior, low-cost, low-impact natural deterrent to fruit-eating birds. We estimate these hawks saved us hundreds of dollars worth of blueberries and other berry crops that birds normally eat during our berry harvest seasons last year.
According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), the red-tailed hawk is locally known as the chicken hawk; these large hawks are commonly seen along roadsides. They have increased in numbers during the last decade, and according to VDGIF, this is largely due to an increase in open land, whether by clear-cutting, agriculture, or road and power-line construction.
Red-tailed hawks forage primarily on small mammals and will take snakes and other reptiles as well as birds. Most of their hunting is done from a perch overlooking areas of shorter vegetation, and as a result, they benefit if we leave perch trees standing along open fields.
These hawks nest in large hardwood or pine trees such as woodlots in very secluded areas, especially if a pond or source of water is nearby. Growers may be able to lure the hawks by creating perch sites near berry fields, perhaps with stout poles and round cross-arms to simulate “limbs” suitable for perching. This idea still needs to be tested.
Fortunately for us, we had all these conditions in place out of pure ignorance! Indeed, we were blessed to have these “scare hawks” last year during one of our best berry crops ever! Hopefully they will frequent our berry farm for many years!
In order to generate profit from a newly planted blueberry field that will not begin to bear fruit for at least three years, we decided to plant single rows of strawberries in the center of the blueberry aisles. The young blueberry plants are spaced in rows 10 feet apart providing us with 10-foot aisle widths. We will use a smaller, more narrow mower in those aisles to keep the sod cut close and out of the single rows of strawberry plants. We will also use narrow cultivation, hand weeding, and dormant-season herbicide application on the strawberry rows.
This will not be a U-Pick planting for the general public; we have three women along with two teenage girls and their mother who come here to pick berries they retail at local farmers markets. They will handle the harvest of these berries that will supply us with a bit of income the year following planting.
We are using narrow matted strawberry rows with drip irrigation under each row of plants, on a high, northwest-facing site planted with hardy northern strawberry varieties. These are not on plastic mulch since we do not wish to create earlier berries with their increased risk of frost.
Strawberries are rarely grown commercially in this area nor in surrounding areas these days, so we do not need early berries — we just need berries! We are relying partly on a mix of mid-season varieties for even better frost protection from their slightly later bloom period, but primarily we rely on the high elevation site adjacent to excellent lower ground air drainage and its northwest orientation for slow warm-up in the spring.
Several years ago we successfully produced thin, matted row strawberries on this site and never suffered severe frost damage. With careful renovation and weed control, we expect to obtain at least three successive years of good berry crops from the single planting. Also, if our fine red-tailed hawk friends desire to eat a ripe strawberry now and then, we definitely will not complain!