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You Are Here Sunflower Magazine > Beating the Birds

Sunflower Magazine

Beating the Birds
January 2002

Beating the Birds

The last thing a sunflower grower wants to think about in January is

blackbirds. For those suffering economic loss at the beaks of these

winged marauders, dealing with them in August or September is itself

sufficiently time consuming, tiresome and expensive.

Yet the most-effective blackbird control programs tend to be those

which are planned well ahead of late summer and involve a multi-faceted

management plan. Spending some time over winter developing that

strategy can pay dividends when those flocks of blackbirds start homing

in on your fields.

The obvious should be stated up front: Despite a quarter century of

effort involving many people, there's still no "silver bullet" for the

control of blackbirds in sunflower fields. No hybrid is immune to

blackbird depredation; no single management tool can deliver complete


Some of those tools quickly came and went (remember cracked corn doused

with Tabasco sauce?); others - propane boomers, Avitrol, shotguns,

rifles and hazing aircraft - are still here, providing at least some

help. The affected grower's best odds lie in utilizing any and all

weapons at his disposal.

Along with the above-noted measures, field placement can be a big

factor. Sometimes planting sunflower adjacent to sloughs, other

wetlands or groves of trees is unavoidable. But since such areas are

roosting and nesting sites for blackbirds, it should not be surprising

that they simultaneously serve as launching pads for hungry birds

looking for a meal.

Three other important weapons also are available to blackbird-plagued

sunflower growers. One - a federal cattail management program - has

been offered to Dakota growers (at no cost) for several years. The

second - a food-grade bird repellent called BirdShieldT - came on the

market just last year. Both can help producers gain the upper hand in

their battles with the birds. The third tool is Starlicide, for

blackbirds hanging around feedlots and dairies.

Cattail Management

Over the past decade, the cattail management program administered by

the Wildlife Services Division of USDA's Animal and Plant Health

Inspection Service (APHIS) has treated tens of thousands of North and

South Dakota cattail acres with an EPA-approved aquatic herbicide

("Rodeo"). The primary goal is to reduce the breeding habitat which

dense cattail stands provide for blackbirds. Simultaneously, waterfowl

and other wildlife also benefit when cattail-choked wetlands are "opened


APHIS contracts with private aerial applicators to do the spraying,

commonly via helicopter. The area to be sprayed must consist of at

least 10 continuous acres; acreage cannot be along free-flowing streams

and rivers; and larger eligible wetlands are given priority over smaller

ones. The actual herbicide treatment covers about 70% of the overall

acreage, typically in a strip pattern.

The APHIS cattail management program is operated free of charge to

participating landowners. Interested Dakota landowners* should contact

their state APHIS Wildlife Service office for details and to enroll.

The number at Bismarck, N.D., is 701-250-4405; for Pierre, S.D., call


Phil Mastrangelo, state Wildlife Services director for North Dakota,

encourages landowners to start planning now for participation in the

2002 cattail management program, rather than waiting until spring or

summer. (Spraying starts in late June and continues into August.) He

points out that while the program covered 5,800 North Dakota acres in

2001, Wildlife Services had to turn away some interested landowners

simply because of limited time and resources. The earlier a landowner

applies for the program, the better his or her chances of being

enrolled, Mastrangelo emphasizes.

The Wildlife Services official says the cattail-reducing effect of the

herbicide treatments can often still be seen up to six or seven years

later. Higher water levels in recent years also has helped extend

suppression of cattail regrowth.

Of course, landowners also can act on their own to manage cattails via

burning, disking or other means - including arranging themselves for the

spraying of Rodeo. Ward Eichhorst, who farms with his father and

father-in-law near the central North Dakota community of Coleharbor, has

already taken steps to reduce cattail density in wetlands near the

planned locations for his 2002 sunflower fields.

"The first thing we did, back in late August and early September, was

to get as close as we could with a sickle mower and cut some down,"

Eichhorst says. "Then, as areas started to dry up later in the fall, we

went out and burned those." Also, on ground which was sufficiently dry

and firm, "we took in a 30-foot disk and worked down the cattails."

Eichhorst applied for the APHIS cattail management program in 2001, but

was among those who were too late. He's already on the list for 2002

and expects his enrolled acreage will be sprayed.

Like many other bird-impacted producers, Eichhorst knows a

multi-faceted battle plan works best. He'll use a rifle and shotgun to

disperse birds, has had an aerial applicator "buzz" fields on several

occasions, and also has treated field portions with Avitrol in recent

years. The key, he stresses, "is to keep the pressure on the birds.

Don't let them get comfortable." Eichhorst also will consider using

BirdShield in 2002.

The McLean County producer may pull one more arrow from his quiver as

well over the coming weeks and months. He and his farming partners run

a cow-calf operation, and he know blackbirds tend to congregate around

feedlots. So Eichhorst is considering using Starlicide, a slow-acting,

restricted-use pesticide that is highly toxic to starlings and other

blackbird species, as a way to reduce those feedlot populations without

harming game birds and other nontarget species. (See article on page 26

for more on Starlicide.)

Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower

Association, points out that producers also can spray cattails with

Roundup when no water exists in the wetland. "In fact, the best

approach in the fall would be to spray them with Roundup, let the

chemical translocate in the cattails, and then burn, cut or till to keep

that area as dry as possible for the next spring," he suggests.

Kleingartner adds that if a producer is not enrolled in the APHIS

cattail spraying program but has cattails in standing water, he still

has the option of arranging for the application of Rodeo or other

labeled aquatic herbicides on his own to reduce cattail density. "It is

a good investment," he states.

BirdShield Repellent

BirdShield is a taste-aversion product which has been used

nationwide for years on fruit crops like cherries, blueberries and table

grapes. It recently gained EPA approval for use on corn and sunflower,

and was available commercially on 'flowers for the first time in 2001.

BirdShield is a biodegradable food-grade repellent (its active

ingredient is a component in Concord and other grapes) which is aerially

applied to the face of sunflower plant heads. The treated seeds are

distasteful to blackbirds, prompting them to leave the field in search

of other food sources. The product's effective life-span is in the

range of seven to 10 days, though weather may shorten (hot, sunny) or

lengthen (cool, overcast) that period.

Leonard Askham, BirdShield's developer and a prior Washington State

University animal control researcher, says the product was applied to

more than 100,000 sunflower acres in North Dakota alone last year. User

reports generally have been quite positive, he says. In those instances

where BirdShield was not as effective as hoped, the reason usually could

be traced to one of three circumstances, according to Askham:

(1) The aerial applicator was not sufficiently familiar with the

product and how to apply it. Spray nozzles were not adjusted properly,

resulting in larger droplets which could not be "sucked up" by the plane

wings' vortex to adequately cover the faces of inverted (hanging)

sunflower heads.

(2) Timing, i.e., growers waiting too long before ordering an

application. It is very important for BirdShield to be applied when the

birds begin showing up in a sunflower field. While the repellent will

discourage "new" feeding, it cannot undo damage already done.

(3) "Some growers have been unable to distinguish between 'old' and

'new' [blackbird] damage. Even if they get the repellent on early, or

use other hazing devices, there will still be some damage to the

'flowers that occurred previously. This can lead them to conclude that

what they are doing or using is not working - which may not be the

case." Askham defines old damage as empty sunflower head bracts that

are dark and "crusty," while the face of a newly damaged head will be

lighter in color, moist and softer when touched.

While he's obviously very pro-BirdShield, Askham concurs the product is

not a one-stop answer to blackbird depredation. He says it's more

effective than most traditional forms of blackbird control; but growers

are well-advised to supplement BirdShield treatments with harassment

tools like propane boomers and guns. Also, some of BirdShield's

effectiveness will depend on the intensity of bird appetites. "If you

have birds that are starving to death, they're going to eat anything,"

Askham observes.

Harvey, N.D., producer Stan Buxa, who treated a sizable percentage of

his '01 sunflower acreage, agrees timing is critical when applying

BirdShield. "We found it worked best when you put it on as early as

possible after you see birds [in the field]," he reports. "Don't put it

on as a protectant; wait until the birds are starting to feed there."

That point underscores the importance of close field monitoring. Buxa

says those fields where BirdShield didn't appear to be as effective were

ones on which he fell behind with monitoring due to the busy small grain

harvest season. "We had some [sunflower acreage] where the birds were

already established, and it wasn't nearly as effective there," he

reports. "I also thought it worked a little better [when combined] with

harassment. We chased a lot of birds from petal drop on," Buxa adds.

"Monitoring is a real key," agrees APHIS' Phil Mastrangelo. "I know

it's difficult when growers are so busy with grain harvest; but often

they'll go back [after grain harvest], look at their sunflower fields

after petal drop, and the birds will have already been in there. And

it's always difficult to changes those feeding habits once they've been

established for a few weeks."

With a per-acre cost of $11 or $12 (product + application), many

growers will opt to treat field portions rather than the entire field.

In Buxa's case, he treated a couple fields in their entirety, "but

mostly it was blocks next to sloughs, cattails - wherever the feeding

pressure was highest," he says. Askham says his company has not yet

developed recommendations in that regard, but he does advise growers to

treat not only sunflower acreage, but also those adjacent wetlands,

waterways and tree groves which can serve as "loafing areas" for birds

when they are not actively feeding. - Don Lilleboe

* Though the USDA-APHIS cattail management program currently operates

only in the Dakotas, other states' Wildlife Services Division offices

also can be contacted for blackbird control information: Lakeland, Colo.

(303-969-5775); Manhattan, Kan. (985-532-1549); and Lincoln, Neb.


A Year-Round Blackbird Battle Plan

Winter -

. If blackbirds have been a serious problem, try to locate the coming

season's sunflower fields away from sloughs and other wetlands, if


. Interested North and South Dakota landowners should be contacting

their state office of USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services for information on

enrolling acreage in the coming year's cattail management program.

. If conditions allow, cut or burn cattail areas near future sunflower

fields. (Wetlands located on federal or state property or under CRP may

require permission from the appropriate agency. That's also the case

with such acreage if to be sprayed under the APHIS program.)

. Do you operate a feedlot or dairy where blackbirds tend to

congregate? Consider the use of pelleted Starlicide according to label

recommendations. Also, if neighbors have such operations, seek their

cooperation in a similar effort.

(See article on page 26.)

Spring -

. Once conditions permit, consider disking dry cattail areas which

could serve as roosting sites later on.

Summer & Early Fall -

. As sunflower fields move toward petal drop, monitor those fields

regularly for the presence of blackbirds.

. If birds begin moving in, disperse or unsettle them by applying

BirdShield and/or setting up propane boomers. Gunfire, hazing aircraft

and other legal means of harassment also can be employed.

. If not enrolled in the APHIS Wildlife Services cattail management

program, consider arranging yourself for the application of a labeled

aquatic herbicide on cattail areas which harbor threatening populations

of blackbirds.

Late Fall -

. With wetland water levels often lower, this can be a good time to

cut, burn or disk cattail areas.

Feedlot Management of Blackbirds

Blackbirds often congregate around feedlots and dairies, taking

advantage of the food sources they can find there. This commonly occurs

in the spring as flocks move northward. Breaking into smaller groups,

they'll loiter around feedlots and dairies since other feed sources are

limited at that time of year.

"It is these blackbirds that will be setting up breeding grounds in

your wetlands," NSA's Larry Kleingartner observes. "They will raise

several young and will be the first to attack your ripening sunflower

fields in August. They'll also attract other migrators in the fall."

Spring deployment of Starlicide avicide is the most effective way to

control these particular blackbird populations. To use this product,

the birds must be baited onto the bait site. "Use a pre-bait (any

grain) first and place it on a wagon or other location inaccessible to

the cattle or other animals. Then, after a few days of baiting, switch

to Starlicide," Kleingartner says, "keeping it dry to ensure its


"Starlicide is a slow-acting product, so you are unlikely to see any

dead birds [on site]," he notes, adding that "dead blackbirds are safe

for scavengers since the active ingredient is excreted."

Starlicide is distributed by Earth City Resources of Bridgetown, Mo.

(phone 314-291-6720). It is a restricted-use pesticide; follow label

directions closely.

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