Contributed Content: Getting the Flock Out! Bird Mitigation Innovations in Agriculture
By Vanessa Williams, Animal Behaviorist with Migratory Bird Management & Wild Goose Chase (March 16, 2021)
As long as humans have tended crops and raised livestock, birds have adapted and evolved to take advantage of our success. While some birds have been beneficial, eating pests that damage plants and annoy or infect stock, most have become pests themselves by eating the crops and feed and spreading illness. Our ancestors did what they could to mitigate the damage with limited technology. Children were tasked with chasing birds out of crops and the Egyptians and Greeks developed scarecrows, painting them in bright colors and arming them with clubs to ward flocks of quails away from their wheat fields.
While times and technology have changed, the problems caused for agricultural industries by birds have not. Every year birds such as blackbirds, robins, starlings, and grackles cause hundreds of millions of dollars in losses of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts by consuming and contaminating them. Herons, cormorants, and eagles decimate food and sport fish aquaculture and introduce parasites and diseases into the rearing ponds. Flocks of starlings, numbering in the tens of thousands, descend upon dairy and meat cattle farms and eat hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of livestock feed and spread diseases like Salmonella and Johne’s disease. Waterfowl carry and spread diseases like avian flu and virulent Newcastle disease to poultry, resulting in millions of chickens, turkeys, and ducks being culled to protect human health and prevent disease transmission. This results in billions of dollars in losses. While these losses are devastating for farmers, they also hit the average person where it hurts the most: the ability to feed their family an affordable healthy diet as they pay the price for feasting birds.
Starlings are voracious, consuming the most nutritious parts of livestock feed. After the feast, they perch in the rafters above the cows and their bacteria-filled droppings rain down into food, water, and on the cows themselves.
Graph I: Industry Losses
Mitigating bird damage in agriculture is not as easy as just spraying a pesticide. Native birds are protected and, in most cases, it is unlawful to poison or slay them without a permit. This can be frustrating and disheartening for farmers battling the birds. Even though non-native, invasive birds like house sparrows, pigeons, and European starlings are allowed to be killed, birds often flock with other species and that makes it nearly impossible to effectively cull the invasive birds without collateral damage to protected native species. Birds are also incredibly intelligent and adapt quickly to our attempts to keep them away from crops and feed. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs for birds using both traditional and new technologies have had great success at limiting damage. Qualified bird management companies with experts in agricultural mitigation are an excellent investment in protecting farm livelihoods and increasing profits. An integrated bird management plan is built on an understanding of each pest bird species’ biology and behavior along with each property’s specific situation and conflict. This is used to determine which tools and techniques to implement, and when to employ them for the most effective and cost-efficient solution for that particular scenario.
When used by themselves, traditional scare methods like noisemakers, scarecrows, and decoys only work for a short period of time before the birds realize that they pose no real danger and ignore them. Structural exclusion products like netting, while often very effective, can be cumbersome and time consuming, especially if you have to net off large orchards or berry patches. Other structural deterrents like bird spikes and shock track can be a good option to deter perching, but are useless if damage is occurring in the fields. Predator harassment using trained dogs and abatement falcons can be effective, but is often very costly. With no silver bullet to solve pest bird issues, losses are expected and as they begin to mount, so too does the frustration and desperation.
Decoys like this owl work only for a short time before birds get accustomed and ignore them.
However, while birds are a more cunning adversary than the average person would imagine, humans are nothing if not resilient and innovative! A recent addition to agriculture’s bird management arsenal are fully programmable autonomic lasers: a state-of-the-art technology that has become a game changer for many farms. While certain tools and techniques are species specific, these lasers work 24/7 on all bird species and can be easily adapted to work in almost any agriculture industry, especially fruit, dairy, poultry, sweet corn, and aquaculture, with great success. They are effective: birds see differently than we do and a moving laser beam seems like a dangerous threat. They are time efficient: while not entirely “set it and forget it” each laser is programmed to run continuously with very little maintenance. They can work inside a barn and outdoors in a field. Because they are programmed to move in a very random pattern, birds do not become acclimated to them. They remain a persistent and unpredictable threat. And while they seem expensive initially to purchase and install, farmers often have a return on investment within one year with the reductions in losses due to birds. Best of all, they are a humane choice and do no harm to the birds, making this a safe option for protected native species and invasive species alike! While not a silver bullet for all bird issues, autonomic and handheld lasers can be a worthwhile tool in agriculture’s IPM toolbox!
While most effective at night, autonomic lasers keep birds away from crops and feed 24/7.
Graph II: Production Gains
One blueberry farmer increased revenue by nearly a third when adding autonomic lasers to his IPM plan!
We share our planet with these intelligent descendants of the dinosaurs and they have consistently adapted to changes in climate, flora, and fauna. As long as humans grow healthy and delicious food, birds will try to get their share, and we need to stay one step ahead of them! By continuing to innovate new solutions and work through pest bird issues in an integrated manner, we can safeguard our agriculture and continue to feed the world.
ABOUT VANESSA WILLIAMS
Vanessa Williams is an animal behaviorist at Wild Goose Chase. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point in 2008 with two bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology and a concentration in zoology, behavior, and learning with studies specifically in birds and canines. As a member of the Audubon Society and resident bird nerd, Williams has been turning her talents and passions to helping create environmental balance for birds since 2010. With a thorough understanding of bird behavior, she assists in solving wild bird conflicts in a way that benefits both the client and the birds involved. Her primary focuses are on how excessive bird populations affect water quality, airfield wildlife management, and window collision prevention. Williams has presented research at numerous national and international conferences. She also is a canine trainer and volunteers in canine rescue.
* All views, data, opinions and declarations expressed are solely those of the author(s) and not of Women in Agribusiness or parent company HighQuest Partners.