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Tips For Blackbird Control in 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
filed under: Birds

By Phil Mastrangelo*

Make blackbird damage management a part of your sunflower production plan. Planning is everything. A proactive approach to address blackbird damage, if it occurs, is a much better strategy than a reactive approach. Use your previous experiences to help prepare for each sunflower growing season. The following six tips should be incorporated into the production plan to help reduce the effects of bird damage.

1. Avoid planting sunflower near large stands of cattails. The Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota and South Dakota is heavily dominated by wetlands that have cattails as the primary vegetative cover. Cattail-choked wetlands provide ample nesting and roosting habitat for blackbirds. Consequently, the highest populations of blackbirds in North America are also found in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Sunflower fields that are planted in close proximity to large concentrations of blackbirds can sustain more than 20% damage. Sunflower producers should avoid planting in those areas where large concentrations of blackbirds are likely. Producers should also consider removing as much cattail habitat as they can. This can be accomplished by burning, disking or through the application of approved herbicides.

2. Harvest sunflower as early as possible. Efforts should be taken to reduce the amount of time sunflower is exposed to bird damage. The less time blackbirds have to feed on the crop equates to less overall damage to the crop. Growers should consider using desiccants to allow an earlier harvest of the sunflower crop. Recent advances have provided newer products that desiccate sunflower and also provide broadleaf weed control.

3. Rely upon other cultural practices to reduce the potential for blackbird damage. In addition to managing cattail habitat and the use of desiccants, sunflower producers should consider other cultural practices for reducing the impacts of blackbird damage. For example:

• Neighboring farmers should coordinate the planting date of their sunflower fields to reduce the potential for some fields maturing early and being more susceptible to bird damage.

• Plant “decoy crops “ in close proximity of cattail wetlands to divert blackbirds away from commercial sunflower fields.

• Plant larger acreage of sunflower to spread the damage over a broader area.

• Delay fall plowing of harvested grain fields to provide an alternative food source for blackbirds.

• Practice good weed and insect control in sunflower crops to reduce potential food sources for blackbirds before the sunflower seeds ripen.

4. There is no “silver bullet” for resolving blackbird damage. Managing blackbird damage requires planning, persistence, commitment and the realization that no single method or technique will resolve the problem. Considerable effort has been taken to find the best method to resolve the blackbird problem. The “best method” is to use as many methods as possible.

In addition to the previously mentioned cultural practices, a bird harassment program should also be initiated. Most (75%) of blackbird damage to sunflower occurs within two and a half weeks after petal drop, so a harassment program should begin early — before blackbirds become habituated to feeding in sunflower fields. It is much easier to disperse birds shortly after they arrive in fields compared to birds that have been feeding in fields for several days or weeks.

Harassment techniques include the use of propane cannons, pyrotechnics and shooting. Propane cannons will disperse birds if they are deployed early, are moved to different locations, are elevated to allow the noise to project above the tops of the crop, and are maintained to ensure that they continue to operate properly. Pyrotechnics are noise-making projectiles fired from pistols. These devices travel considerable distance, so they help can help disperse birds from the interior of sunflower fields.

Shooting blackbirds helps reinforce the harassment provided by propane cannons and pyrotechnics, so all three methods should be employed. Federal and state laws allow the killing of blackbirds that are damaging crops or pose a threat to crops. Recent changes in federal regulations require that non-toxic ammunition be used when shooting blackbirds to protect crops. Also, sunflower producers must provide the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with an annual report detailing the types and numbers of blackbirds killed each year.

Chemical repellents are registered to protect sunflower from blackbird damage. These products should be used according to their label and would be more effective if applied shortly after birds are detected in fields. While there have been varying reports of the efficacy of chemical repellents, producers should still consider them as an option for mitigating blackbird damage.

5. Contact USDA Wildlife Services for assistance. USDA Wildlife Services deploys field personnel to help mitigate blackbird damage in North Dakota and portions of South Dakota. The field staff can help producers develop a plan to manage blackbird damage.

Wildlife Services also has a supply of propane cannons available for loan at no cost to the producer. Wildlife Services will also distribute small quantities of pyrotechnics at no cost to producers. However, sunflower producers should plan on purchasing their own equipment to ensure that they can deploy harassment devices when needed. The cannons and pyrotechnics owned by Wildlife Services should be viewed as supplements to what the sunflower producers have in their own inventory.

Wildlife Services’ field staff is also available to assist producers with the dispersal of blackbirds from troublesome areas. The demand on the field staff time is often high, but they will assist as many producers as possible. Similar to Wildlife Services’ equipment inventory, the assistance provided by field staff should be viewed as a supplement to the efforts undertaken by sunflower producers. Producers who incorporate blackbird damage management into their sunflower production plan will be better prepared to reduce the effects of bird damage.

6. Heavy bird damage typically occurs near edge of sunflower fields, but that doesn’t imply that the same of amount of damage is evenly distributed throughout the field.

Producers should not be surprised to see heavy bird damage on the edge of their sunflower fields. This is typical. However, that same level of damage may not be evenly distributed across the entire field. Walking toward the center of the field often indicates the variability in damage to the entire crop. Therefore, producers should not assume that their field is a complete loss and then stop any further efforts to mitigate the bird damage.

* Phil Mastrangelo is the state director for USDA-ARS-Wildlife Services in North Dakota.
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