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It’s Blackbird Season Again

Tuesday, September 1, 2009
filed under: Birds

USDA’s Wildlife Services is again providing assistance to sunflower growers experiencing blackbird problems. The northern production region has been split into districts, with each having an employee available to assist growers. Early assistance includes loaning of propane cannons and other pyrotechnics. Growers have to provide the propane canisters, and the USDA employees will advise in the placing the cannons to have the most impact. All of the cannons have automatic timers on them, allowing for automatic nighttime shut-off.

Phil Mastrangelo, USDA Wildlife Services director in North Dakota, says it is best to move the cannons every three days and to vary the sequence of boom. “That will add greatly to the effectiveness of the cannons,” Mastrangelo states. He also advises using live ammunition periodically. Federal and state laws allow producers to shoot birds that are damaging their crops; the addition of lethal control reinforces the effect of frightening devices.

The Wildlife Service employees also will be carrying shotguns and will assist growers with harassment, depending on their schedule and the severity of the situation. In situations where large numbers of birds have occupied a field, Mastrangelo can send in additional employees to harass the birds out. “We did that last year in several cases, and it worked,” he notes. In 2008 a privately owned helicopter was used to move birds out of several fields. A helicopter will only be used as a last result, and the producer will be required to pay 50% of the cost. “The cost to the grower last year was several hundred dollars,” according to Mastrangelo.

The districts that Mastrangelo has set up also include the northern border counties of South Dakota. In his experience, the vast majority of blackbird complaints in South Dakota come from these counties. Minnesota growers will be served as well this year. Gary Nohrenberg, the Minnesota Wildlife Services state director, will have one employee located in northwestern Minnesota to assist growers in that region. That is where the bulk of Minnesota sunflower production is located, along with cattail sloughs.

Dr. George Linz of the USDA National Wildlife Research Center has been testing a variety of bird repellents. A number of them are labeled and available to growers. Linz says that caged tests of the labeled repellents have shown mixed results. Field tests are difficult because of all of the variables, but he certainly recommends using them if the grower finds that they work.

All of the sunflower-labeled insecticides provide bird repellency. The most effective in cage testing are Cobalt® and Lorsban®. None are labeled for repelling birds. But when spraying for head insects or grasshoppers, these insecticides may be your choice if birds are also a problem, Linz suggests.

One of the challenges for the future is finding sufficient federal and state dollars to fight this pest on a local and national level. That includes necessary research to implement new strategies. “This is a national problem of great proportions,” says Dan Wiltse, NSA board member and grower from southeastern North Dakota. Wiltse also serves on the USDA Wildlife Services Advisory Committee. “Blackbirds are a huge national problem that most of us would rather not address. There are serious human and animal health issues and major crop losses in many ag industries besides sunflower. There are serious nuisance and health issues in many city centers where blackbirds often inhabit. But we all get complacent as soon as the millions of blackbirds migrate to another location. Then it becomes someone else’s problem and we go on our merry business,” Wiltse observes. As a USDA advisory committee member, Wiltse is committed to raise the blackbird issue as one of the most serious wildlife/human conflicts there are in this country. — Larry Kleingartner

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