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Career Flight Plan Focus: Bird Control

Friday, November 1, 2013
filed under: Birds

You could say George Linz’s career has been “for the birds.”

It’s a career path Linz never expected to take. In fact, when he started his career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services (USDA-WS) 35 years ago, Linz had a much different vision for his future.

“My vision was that I would teach at a four-year university and spend my summers doing field research. What happened was pretty much the exact opposite. I did not see myself doing this work for 35 years. But as I look back, it probably turned out for the best,” Linz says.

His career began in 1978, when Linz was a Ph.D. student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D. “I showed up for grad school in Fargo on a record 105-degree September day. As if that wasn’t a good enough welcome, it went on to be a very, very, very cold and snowy winter, which led to the historic floods of 1979,” Linz remembers. “The weather didn’t scare me away; but when teaching positions opened, there were a thousand applicants for one job. It was very difficult to get a teaching job.”

Linz finished his doctorate and spent a few years working in Colorado. In 1989 he came back to North Dakota. Linz was assigned to the newly established North Dakota Field Station, located on the NDSU campus in Fargo. In 1996 the station was moved to Bismarck, N.D., and so was Linz. ”I’ve been here ever since,” he relates. “Bismarck has been a great place to be. The NSA headquarters are in Mandan, and the NSA and the wildlife services have been very supportive of our work, which has made it easier for me.”

The blackbirds, on the other hand, have made Linz’s job anything but easy. They are a pesky critter, targeting sunflower fields across the region. “Blackbirds like sunflower. It’s their preferred food because they can start eating it as soon as the kernel starts to form and can continue eating it all the way until harvest,” explains Linz. Blackbirds gorge on the calorie-rich sunflower crops throughout late summer and early fall, preparing for the physical stresses of migration. The USDA-WS receives hundreds of requests for assistance to protect crops, like sunflower, from the damage caused by blackbirds. Many of those requests are for protection of sunflower fields planted near cattail-dominated wetlands.

Linz says all those birds have forced many producers to stop growing sunflower altogether. “I’m convinced we would have at least somewhat more acres of sunflower if it were not for the blackbirds,” he states. “Some growers have stopped growing sunflower because of blackbirds. The prairie pothole region of North Dakota was once a big sunflower area, but growers there have moved away from sunflower because of the blackbirds. You can bet sunflower would be in their rotation if they didn’t have to deal with the literally 70 million blackbirds that come through the Northern Plains every year.”

Today, North Dakota’s sunflower crop has moved west and north, out of the prairie pothole region and into areas where the birds aren’t such a big problem. “By and large, people who grow sunflower are those who live in areas where they don’t have the blackbirds,” Linz says.

That’s not to say the blackbirds are no longer a problem. Sunflower producers report bird damage yearly. Over the years, Linz has researched and tested dozens of techniques to get keep blackbirds out of sunflower fields. There have been good ideas — ideas that seem good, until they’re actually tested. And there have been some ideas that are just plain wacky, including one to release feral cats into sunflower fields to get rid of the birds. “We never tried that. We also had a suggestion that, since birds like to roost on wires, why can’t they be electrocuted or at least scared off that way? I never tried that. I believe maybe that was tried in the 1960s, but it didn’t work. The birds flew off, and there was an incredible danger to the researcher,” Linz recalls.

The truth is, wacky or not, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to controlling blackbirds. What works for one producer, might not work for another. Finding different solutions for different growers is a challenge.

But there have been some techniques that have proven successful over the years. At the top of that list: propane cannons. Propane cannons remain a popular method of scaring blackbirds away from sunflower fields; but the effectiveness has been shown to be limited to relatively small areas. Even so, propane cannons are the preferred method still today among many producers. Each year, North Dakota Wildlife Services distributes more than 400 propane cannons to hundreds of sunflower growers who had reported blackbird damage. As many as eight technicians travel the state, helping farmers propel the cannons. “Growers are happy to have someone show up and give them a hand,” Linz says. “How much those cannons actually help, who knows?”

But firing propane cannons takes time, and that’s something many of today’s farmers just don’t have. “One of the biggest changes from the ’70s to now is the size of the farms,” Linz points out. “Farms are so much bigger now. Fields used to be 60-80 acres and located just behind the house. Farmers would send their kids out there with a shotgun or pots and pans to rattle together and scare off the birds.

“The size of the farms today just doesn’t allow that. Growers have land they’ve rented 20 miles from their home. It’s just not possible to get out there every day to scare away the birds.”

So farmers — and researchers like Linz — have found other ways to control the blackbirds. Repellents are one popular idea, and Linz says they have a new repellent that looks good in the lab setting. “The big test will be to take it to the field; but even if it turns out to be a pretty good repellent, we still need alternative food to keep the birds away. Think about it: if you’re hungry, you will fight your way through barriers to get food. Birds are no different,” Linz points out.

Changing the way they farm also has helped producers keep blackbirds away. No-till operations work in the sunflower producer’s favor because in no-till operations, there’s always at least some sunflower on the ground. That sunflower becomes an alternate crop, i.e., birds feed there, instead of on the new ’flower crop.

“A lot of farmers now are desiccating their crop. That helps with blackbirds and evens out the harvest,” Linz adds. “There’s no question it helps. Psychologically, it helps, too, because from September until the beginning of October, big flocks of birds come in from Canada. It’s a mix of birds — some don’t damage sunflower, but they’re guilty by association.”

The newest blackbird control idea is something straight out of a science fiction movie: drones, or robots. There is research that supports the idea, but it is an expensive idea that has not yet been tested on blackbirds and sunflower. But drones are being used successfully in vineyards in other parts of the country. Linz says while that’s encouraging, he’s still not sure it’s a feasible idea for sunflower growers. “What you can do for a low-acreage crop like blueberries, cherries or grapes is different than what you can afford to do on a higher-acreage crop like sunflower,” he notes. “The number of birds involved makes a difference. There are some techniques, even in sunflower, that when you have a small number of birds are more effective than when you have a large number.”

Perhaps the idea that has Linz the most excited right now is one to grow perennial sunflower. “This is a crop that could be planted on marginal lands where you wouldn’t otherwise put a crop. It wouldn’t have to be replanted every year, so it would save time and money for growers right away — and if it kept the blackbirds out of the rest of the sunflower crop, it would be even more valuable,” he explains.

But as exciting as the future of blackbird control is, George Linz knows it’s time to start thinking about retirement. He could retire as soon as December of 2014; but even then, he knows he will have a hard time leaving this career that has become his life’s work. “I will miss it when it’s time for me to be done,” Linz says. “I’ll miss the interactions with young researchers especially. I enjoy listening to their ideas and seeing how excited they are about research projects. They have fresh ideas and new ways of thinking. I look at their skills and feel very comfortable that we have some good people with very special skills — and that makes me feel better about the thought of retiring.

“I’ll miss the producers, too. I’ve been lucky to work with some really amazing and welcoming farmers over the years. The people who grow sunflower are ‘sunflower people.’ They grow it because they believe in it. They really believe in having sunflower in their rotation. They want to keep growing the crop and are willing to try different things. ”

As for Linz, he’d like to continue helping, if even just on a part-time basis. “I probably won’t be ever able to leave completely. This research has become my life, and that’s a difficult thing to just up and stop,” he says.

One thing is for sure: Linz plans to stay in North Dakota after retirement. And you can bet that, even in retirement, he’ll continue to have one eye on the sky, looking for blackbirds.

— Jody Kerzman

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