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Blackbird Management: Several Options Do Exist

Thursday, November 1, 2012
filed under: Birds

Blackbirds continue to be a black mark on the sunflower industry. They are the reason why some farmers in certain regions of the Dakotas choose not to grow sunflower. There’s no question that sunflower can make a profit; but nothing is more frustrating than watching your crop being eaten by pesky birds right before your eyes.

Sunflower is not the only crop affected by blackbird damage. There is a strong push nationally, not just within the sunflower realm, to find a solution to blackbird damage for a host of crops. Blackbirds annually do an estimated $200 million damage to crops including grains, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s help available for growers who experience blackbird problems. There’s assistance in the way of bird harassment techniques as well as chemical repellents that have proven to be very effective in many situations. There is also research on the horizon for additional chemical repellents (previous article) and mechanical repellents.

Reducing Bird Habitat

But even before a grower calls in reinforcements, the first line of defense is focusing on bird habitat. Controlling cattails, either on dry ground or in wetlands, is a good way to get birds at the source. Cattails are the number one roosting site of choice for blackbirds, and getting rid of those areas near sunflower fields can greatly diminish blackbird activity.

Dr. George Linz of the USDA-APHIS-WS National Wildlife Research Center has found that eliminating cattails can pay dividends for five years or more. Excessive wet conditions for many years in much of the Northern Plains states have been ideal for cattail development. A dry spell in 2012 caused much of those areas to dry up, giving growers an opportunity to go in and remove blackbird roosting locations such as marshes, sloughs and cattails.

Cattails should be sprayed anytime from mid-July to the first frost. Research has found that glyphosate at 4.5 pints mixed with 3-5 gal water/acre provides excellent control. (The annual North Dakota State University weed control guide provides information on control of cattail [Page 67] and other non-crop/troublesome weeds at weed-control-guides/nd-weed-control-guide-1/wcg-files/10-Shelt.pdf.)

Prior to this year, USDA had a specially funded program to assist farmers with spraying wetlands to control cattails. However, due to lack of funding the program is no longer available.

Linz says that some growers have expressed concern that the government-funded assistance is no longer available; but the program did establish a template for growers to follow as they take care of these issues themselves. “We realize many of them are busy, but it’s well worth the time and effort to get rid of the blackbird roosting sites. They, in turn, get the best potential out of their sunflower crop in the fall,” Linz observes.

More-positive news for eliminating habitat is that less CRP acreage also equals less blackbird nesting habitat. In North Dakota alone, almost 650,000 acres were taken out of CRP and put into production after the 2012 contracts expired in October. Approximately 350,000 acres came out of the CRP program in Minnesota and South Dakota combined in this same time period. Fewer idle acres, means less habitat for blackbirds to nest.

USDA Crews Available

The second line of defense for growers is the USDA-WS crews on hand to assist with blackbird issues. Part-time, seasonal employees will deliver and station loaner propane cannons when fields in the Dakotas are being hit by blackbirds.

The cannons are equipped with automatic timers that turn off the noise mechanism at night to conserve propane. The sequence of explosions can be easily changed to minimize the risk of blackbirds becoming accustomed to the noise.

The key is to get the cannons out early before the birds take up residence and get used to associating a field with a major food source. USDA part-time employee for blackbird assistance Sherwood Haakenson services the northeast portion of North Dakota along the Canadian border. This area has a large number of sunflower acres annually and is prone to blackbird activity. He says after being on staff for four seasons and a retired farmer himself, he sees the number one mistake is that growers start the fight too late after the birds have found a field.

“We’ve been very busy this season, temporarily running out of supplies of cannons and shotgun shells trying to keep all the growers covered,” he says. “It’s important to be out there early before the birds settle in. We’re not the total answer, but we’re here to help.”

Haakenson is one of eight workers who are direct contacts for growers in need of assistance. However, more staff is sometimes needed when fall migrations come through the flyway. USDA will also provide additional people, as needed, to harass these huge flocks. The key message from USDA is that growers are not alone in their battle. There’s help out there and local workers across the Dakotas who can offer direct and swift assistance when needed.

Sunflower growers seeking blackbird management assistance can contact the USDA-APHIS-WS office in Bismarck, N.D., at 701-250-4405.

Chemical Options

Chemical bird repellents have been on the market for several years. Two, Bird ShieldTM and Flock BusterTM, have been available for quite some time. Both consist of natural ingredients.

Flock Buster, designed to repel blackbirds with seven aversions (three for scent and four for taste), is commonly used in areas prone to blackbird damage. The company that produces Flock Buster is based in eastern North Dakota. Many growers throughout the region attest to the success of the product in saving yield. Another option on the market is Bird Shield. Extensive field testing has been done on sunflower by the Washington-based company illustrating the success of the product. Both products can be easily mixed with other chemical applications for cost savings.

As reported in the article beginning on page 22, new to the marketplace is a repellent registered for sunflower called Avian ControlTM. The chemical is labeled and EPA-approved for sunflower, but no testing had been done on the crop until this growing season. Early observations are positive for efficacy, but official field results on Avian Control are still pending.

Some growers, who use the available products on a larger scale, may find different results depending on the situation. Many factors can influence efficacy, e.g., bird population numbers, migratory habits, timing of application, etc.

“Number one, you have an airplane flying over the field rousing the birds; and, another you’re putting out a chemical that contains an irritant for the birds. I have no doubt that some birds flee from the fields due to the aerial application of approved chemicals available in the marketplace,” Linz says. “It’s tricky to assess results, however, because there are so many factors at play. Did the birds migrate? Did they find another food source? How [big a] role did the plane have on scaring the birds? Those are important questions we can’t always answer to point toward efficacy.”

Unfortunately, in some cases the effects are not long-lived or consistent. Unpredictable and ever-changing environments and timing of application can bring about a wide range of results. If a grower finds something that works, by all means keep using it, Linz notes.

Technology Options

Another approach being pursued by research and private business is technology devices that would disrupt birds’ behavior. How do birds react to a fabricated predatory hawk flying in the vicinity, for example? How about a remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (commonly referred to as a drone)? It might sound far-fetched at first, but the more researchers learn about bird behavior, the more they are intrigued by how they react to predators (or perceived predators).

“We take the approach that we first try to improve on what’s already available and not try to come up with something new. There’s a lot we don’t know about mechanical repellents that try to mimic a predator,” Linz explains. “What’s the reaction of the birds to a real predator? How is that different from a bird’s reaction to something electronic, for example? We’re investing in how we can improve upon existing technologies.” USDA is in the process of collaborating with biological sciences groups at NDSU and Michigan State University to research this area further.

This technology, in some form, already exists. It just hasn’t been tested on sunflower. A company from Oregon, for example, has developed a product called Bird GardTM. For 25 years, the company has been eliminating bird damage in vineyards, fruits and nut orchards worldwide. The product isn’t new, by any means, but it’s just now venturing into sunflower.

According to company spokesperson Rick Willis, Bird Gard uses digital recordings of bird distress and alarm calls, along with the sounds of their natural predators, broadcast through high-fidelity, weatherproof speakers to convince birds they are under attack. The direction, duration and timing of sounds are controlled by a microprocessor to give the impression there is danger all around. The sounds trigger a primal “fear and flee” response in the birds, causing them to relocate to where they can feed without feeling threatened. The noises are randomized to ensure the birds don’t get used to the sounds.

Bird Gard products are not harassment devices like propane cannons or shot guns that attempt to annoy the birds into leaving. Rather, the devices use bioacoustic science that capitalizes on the survival instincts built into the DNA of the birds.

So if this technology is available, why hasn’t it yet been utilized in sunflower?

“We’re a small company that protects millions of crop acres worldwide. Until recently, we didn’t realize birds were such a problem for sunflower growers,” explains Willis. “It really doesn’t matter what the crop is: our products are only limited by the species of birds causing the damage. Vineyards, cherries and other soft fruits have severe problems with redwing blackbirds, grackles and starlings. We’ve been extremely effective in keeping them out of those crops for decades. It’s only natural to expect we can do the same for sunflower.”

Willis realizes some growers remain skeptical that the devices are suited for all crops; but he explains:  “Most birds don’t fly real high, maybe 50-70 feet high. By staking out our Bird Gard around the block of sunflowers on 10-foot poles, we create a sonic barrier nearly 200 feet high that the birds won’t cross. If we simply do the perimeter of a field, in most cases that is sufficient to keep them out at a relatively low cost.”

Willis assures that even though there are unique issues with sunflower, Bird Gard units are well suited. “The pecan and pistachio growers we work with have trees upwards of 70 feet tall, and we see at or near 100% effectiveness. Protecting sunflower should be easy, given the relatively short crop height and flat terrain,” he says. “We’d like to concentrate on keeping the birds out of marshes and wetland areas where the birds roost. We know from past experience that if we can disturb their sleeping habitats, they will soon leave the entire area.”

Another advantage is the units’ mobility. “They are fully self-contained and easily transported. At the end of the season, it only takes a few minutes to take each unit down, put them in the back of a pickup and store them for the winter,” Willis explains. “They are watertight and can survive out in the elements.”

The company’s largest unit covers 30 acres at a retail cost of $3,500 — which figures out to about $117/acre. When used to circle large blocks, the cost per acre drops to less than $50 an acre. “Our unit really is a lifetime product. I’m working with some vineyards that are still using units that go back 25 years,” Willis notes. “When you average the cost over several years, growers find them to be extremely economical. You put them out in the field before the birds start showing up, and you pick them up at harvest.”

Willis is working with NSA and USDA’s Linz on a more formal study with multiple locations next growing season. “We know we can get rid of redwing blackbirds, grackles crows, ravens and European starlings. We just need to demonstrate we can do it for sunflower,” he says.

Bird Gard is looking for growers with the worst cases of bird damage for a demonstration with their units during the 2013 growing season. “Let us put our units out there where the blackbirds are worst,” Willis says. “It’s very dramatic when it works — and it always works. That’s the easiest way to demonstrate how effective our products are.”

Field demonstrations in 2013 will be a true test of Bird Gard on sunflower.

Whether it is habitat elimination, USDA “blackbird crew” assistance, chemical repellent application or mechanical repellents, the war on blackbirds continues. Anyone knows it’s difficult to fight nature, but in this case there’s help and there’s hope.

For interested persons, here’s contact information for the companies mentioned:

• Flock Buster: or 877-662-7697

• Bird Shield: or 509-339-5740

• Avian Control: or 888-707-4355

• Bird Gard: or 888-332-2328

— Sonia Mullally
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