Vienna-based photographer Stefan Fürtbauer first heard about Star Fighters—pilots who chase starlings out of vineyards—in the news years ago when one of the pilots crashed into a tree (she survived). After doing a little research, he learned that the purpose of chasing starlings with planes (and other methods) is neither to kill nor harm the birds, but to spread their crop damage out evenly so the grape loss isn’t concentrated to a particular vineyard or village.
While the growers use many methods to annoy the birds (guns with blank cartridges, gas alarm shot devices and ragamuffins), flying WWII-era planes at a low altitude over the vineyards is by far the most spectacular. Stefan decided to shoot a full story on the starling defense methods, and the photos below focus on one of his subjects, Fritz Wech, a 68-year-old retired flight instructor who now spends his time chasing starlings.
There wasn’t much preparation except some research and a few calls to bird scientists/local government for some background on the star fighting. In fact, Stefan’s biggest challenge was simply connecting with the locals. The star fighting takes place in the countryside, and he says that the people involved are typically older agricultural workers with “a lot of mistrust towards strangers.”
The first day I stopped by I apparently got off on the right foot and was pretty self-confident and open-minded enough to accept anything I would face in terms of reactions. The people were surprisingly open-minded as well, and let me join in what they were doing. The news that there was a reportage photographer around spread faster than a wildfire—whenever I stepped in they already knew who I was and what I was doing.
Stefan says that using the planes to chase the starlings may soon be forbidden, due to an increasing amount of crashes and casualties each year. Costs are also increasing, so the vineyards may start switching to nets rather than employing the star fighters. He’s appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about the craft, and for him, it was a learning experience in the art of storytelling.
Oh I learned so much during the weeks I spent on this project. I learned a lot personal stuff, how to approach people, how to work with mistrust and get involved. I also learned a lot when I edited the pictures for the first time—what worked well and what did not work out at all. The greatest lesson learned of this effort was that a story is always about people. You really need someone to transport the story and the better you can engage with someone, the better for the story!
Check out more of Stefan’s work on his website, stefanfuertbauer.com.