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Funding Aids Dakota Growers With Blackbirds

Wednesday, August 31, 2022
filed under: Birds

blackbirds on stalks        Help is on the way for South Dakota producers battling blackbirds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program will be providing blackbird damage management assistance to sunflower producers in South Dakota.
        “We have helped a few producers in South Dakota before,” says John Paulson, North Dakota’s state director of Wildlife Services.  “But until now we’ve had limited resources and personnel to do that. Congress has approved additional funding that will help us hire more people and buy some more equipment, which means we are able to expand our territory.”
        Paulson says when you look at sunflower acres planted, it makes sense to expand into South Dakota.  Acres are up in both states, and the break in the drought means more wetlands with cattails for roost habitat — and more blackbirds likely taking advantage of this habitat and the ripening sunflower in the Dakotas this fall.
        Thanks to extra federal funding, Paulson’s office is able to purchase an additional 150 propane cannons and bird harassing pyrotechnics that will be used in South Dakota.  He says those are two important tools producers need to have in their tool bags to fight blackbirds,
        “We encourage an integrated approach to blackbird damage management, meaning there’s not one magic solution,” he explains.
        Paulson says that tool bag should include propane cannons and cannon plates. The plates allow the cannons to be three to four feet off the ground, which helps keep rodents away and improves the sound resonance of the propane cannons.
        Pyrotechnics are another important tool.  “Bangers” and “screamers” make the cannons more effective when it comes to harassing blackbirds.  Wildlife Services has also added some long-range rockets; traditional 15mm bangers and screamers are attached to the rockets and shot into the middle of a sunflower field.  Paulson says these rockets give the traditional 15mm pyrotechnics a longer distance and make them more effective, because they can cover a larger portion of the fields.
        “The other thing we can offer producers is ‘boots on the ground’ help,” Paulson says.  “This funding will allow us to hire specialists who help producers with distribution of the cannons and pyrotechnics, and also use shotguns to harass birds.  We know producers are busy and don’t always have time to harass the blackbirds.  Our specialists can assist them.  We feel that shotgun use does help enhance the non-lethal tools, making them more effective, thus the integrated approach.”
        Like in all industries, Paulson says the worker shortage has made hiring these part-time personnel a little difficult.  However, they’ve opened the positions up to Wildlife Services personnel working in other states.  Interested workers can deploy to North and South Dakota for 21 days to help with blackbird management.
        “The great thing is that those workers are already trained to use the equipment, so once they get here, they’re basically ready to get to work,” Paulson observes. “We already have a few people on board from as far away as Pennsylvania and Texas.”
John Paulson
John Paulson, North Dakota state director for USDA’s Wildlife Services, installs a propane cannon plate in a sunflower field

        Some of the Wildlife Services staff have acquired training to use drones to aid in harassing blackbirds as well.  Paulson says drones allow them to reach further into the fields, where the birds tend to gather, rather than just focusing on the edges of the fields.
        “If you’ve got a 640-acre sunflower field and you’re trying to manage the blackbirds using only shotguns or cannons, you’re missing the center of that field, and the birds will just stay there, out of reach of those tools.  Drones and the long-range rockets help us get to those birds.”
        Paulson says it also helps when producers provide access to the middle of their fields; sometimes a four-wheeler track is enough for personnel to get to the center of the field, where they can be more effective.
Drones can play a useful role in the battle to move blackbirds out from the centers of sunflower fields
       Producers interested in getting tools from Wildlife Services to help manage blackbirds should reach out to the office in Bismarck at 701-355-3300.
        “The earlier you have the equipment out there in preparation for when the birds show up, the better,” Paulson emphasizes.  “Don’t wait until the birds show up in late October to call.”
        They’ll determine where specialists will be located once the planted acres report is published in August.  Check the National Sunflower Association website ( for a map and contact information.
        Paulson offers additional tips to control blackbirds:
        •  Start harassment early; don’t wait for the buildup of large flocks.
        •  An integrated approach of harassment utilizing propane cannons, pyrotechnics and shotguns in the most effective.
        •  Move cannons to different locations frequently to avoid habituation.
        •  If you planted close to cattails, consider spraying cattails with glyphosate (Rodeo®) in accordance with the label; or mow cattails, if possible.
        •  Placement of roads or trails in larger fields (quarter section or more) allows access to middle of fields for placement of propane cannons and pyrotechnic harassment.
          •  Consider spraying a desiccant to defoliate at maturity and to accelerate the sunflower harvest prior to bird migration.  — Jody Kerzman
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