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Blackbird Research Site Near Steele, N.D.

Blackbirds have long been known to sunflower growers as a pesky nuisance with a hearty appetite.

For years, modern science has stepped up efforts for solutions to combat the flying feasters. But no easy solutions have been forthcoming.

Earlier this month, a sunflower field located one half mile north of Steele, N.D. was home to a test site for a blackbird repellent. Steele was chosen as the test site due to the concentration of sunflower acres, cooperative growers, and easy access from Bismarck.

The study is headed up by USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center at Fort Collins, Colo. and coordinated by its Bismarck office with funding by the National Sunflower Association through its grower check-off funds.

At the site, researchers set up 24 huts covered in black netting. The huts would serve as homes to some 240 blackbirds while researchers collected data and monitored crop damage. Sixteen huts housed sunflower treated with a concentration of the chemical repellent and another eight were untreated. Each hut contained 10 male red-winged blackbirds. Additionally, two treated crop cages, that did not contain birds, will be analyzed for chemical residue only.

After eating the treated seed, the repellent gives the birds an ‘upset stomach’ with the goal of turning their taste buds off the sunflower. As birds migrate in and out of areas, researchers speculate the repellent will have an aftereffect and stay in the bird’s memory. In a sense, the birds remember the unpleasant intestinal experience and avoid the seed, and hopefully ‘tell all their friends’ in the flock about it to keep them away, too.

The sunflower heads were sprayed when blooming was near completion and petals began to wilt and drop. The morning after spraying, the blackbirds were introduced into the cages where they stayed for two weeks. The birds were provided an alternate food source, in this case, sorghum. The study’s overall objective is to determine how much product is needed to repel the blackbirds. The repellent is successfully used as a seed treatment on corn to keep pheasants from digging out the newly-planted seeds. Researchers know it works on birds. The keys are rates for application and getting the product on the face of the sunflower heads.

Each day, researchers visited the site to survey the area and weigh the alternate food. Researchers will analyze these data, as well as assess head damage and collect seed samples at harvest in order to look for chemical residue, if any, in the seed’s oil and meal.

Dr. George Linz, research biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center, worked at the site each day. He saw some difference in damage with the treated versus the untreated crop, but cannot assess just what that means in terms of overall efficacy of the repellent.

“At this point, I’m saying it’s working,” Linz said. “At what level, I can’t say.”

Even though Linz is cautiously optimistic this early in the game, he also knows there’s a long row to hoe.

“We feel positive, but we have more work to do,” Linz added. “There are still a number of questions that need to be answered from a research standpoint.”

If all the data comes in favorable pointing toward effective repellent for blackbirds, it all depends on if and when registrant, Arkion Life Sciences, is ready to move forward. Should the company decide to move ahead with this data and that gleaned from further testing, the next step would be the EPA registration process on the long road to getting the repellent labeled for distribution.

Jim Gray, pesticide, feed and fertilizer division director for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, would like to see all parties come together to sit down and talk about what data is still needed.

Pending the results of this study, Gray noted that the residue analysis data will have the biggest ramifications in the registration process. Is the crop safe as a food source if traces of chemical are present at harvest?

“Obviously the motivation is there for the chemical company, growers, and others in the industry,” explained Linz. “There is a demand and a proven market for an effective repellent. Not only from sunflower growers, but the sweet corn, rice and fruit growers have big interest in finding a solution to the widespread damage blackbirds cause.”

– Sonia Mullally

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