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Blackbird Battle Aid

Thursday, December 1, 2022
filed under: Birds

Wildlife Technicians from Other Regions Travel to North Dakota To Assist With USDA Bird Management Project
propane cannon
Photo credit: John Paulson
        Blackbirds cause millions of dollars in damage to late-season row crops every year.  As they migrate southward, they often stop to feed in sunflower fields in the Dakotas.
        So, every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program hires a few part-time, seasonal workers to help get those birds out of fields. This year, thanks to additional funding approved by Congress, they were able to purchase an additional 150 propane cannons and bird harassing pyrotechnics and expand their services into South Dakota.
        That extra funding also provided an opportunity to hire more temporary workers.  But Wildlife Services had a hard time finding qualified candidates to apply for the positions.  So, they looked within their own department.
        “We’ve got some changing winds as far as hiring, and it’s an interesting time to be looking for people who want to work in wildlife related fields,” says Tony Halpin, assistant district supervisor for USDA Wildlife Services in Bismarck, N.D.  “In addition to the staffing shortages that are affecting every industry, to work this job you have to have a certain mindset to say, ‘Yes. I’d love to stand out in the cold and harass blackbirds.’  But there are a lot of people who have that mindset and understand the importance of protecting our agricultural resources.”
        Finding those people took some creative thinking and recruiting from some unlikely places.  Halpin was able to find seven current USDA employees willing to spend a few weeks in the Dakotas, helping producers fight blackbirds.
        “We've previously used recent graduates and people who are looking for an opportunity to work with Wildlife Services protecting agriculture,” explains Halpin.  “I don't want to say that it’s dried up; but it's shifted a bit.  This year we began to appreciate the fact that we've got a lot of good skill within our agency and there are people looking to gain experience — and experience something very different.”
personnel with cannon
Vidal Fuentes-Santos (Virgin Islands), Patrick Harrison (Pennsyl­ vania) and Luke Shelly (Georgia) in­stall a propane cannon in a 2022 North Dakota sunflower field.
Photo credit: John Paulson

        People like Vidal Fuentes-Santos.  He was excited to learn everything possible about propane cannons used to harass blackbirds.  “I want to implement that back home,” he relates.
        Home is in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Fuentes-Santos works as a wildlife technician at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on the island of Saint Croix.  “We assist in removing wildlife from the airport, so it doesn’t interfere with flights,” he explains. “We get a lot of deer and migratory birds that can cause serious problems in aircraft.”
        But Fuentes-Santos had a change of scenery.  He and two other technicians spent a few weeks in September and October working in North Dakota, helping farmers keep blackbirds out of their sunflower fields.
        “It’s been amazing,” he affirms. “First of all, the whole idea of how big North Dakota is.  This project would be a lot easier on my island because it is a much smaller area.  Moving birds from the airport is much different than moving birds from sunflower fields that are hundreds of acres in size.  My entire island of Saint Croix is about 28 miles by 7 miles.  This is definitely a challenging job, but we’re learned a lot on mitigating them and making sure our efforts are effective.”
        “We love the birds, but we also want to help farmers save the sunflower so that they can make a good profit,” says Patrick Harrison, a wildlife technician based in Pennsylvania.  “We don’t really have blackbirds in Pennsylvania,” he says.
        Luke Shelly works for USDA Wildlife Services in Georgia.  “There are more trees in my yard than I can see right now!” Shelly laughs upon looking out on a central North Dakota landscape.
        Harrison and Shelly joined Fuentes-Santos in North Dakota.
        “This was the first time I put my hands on a propane cannon,” Shelly admits.  An avid sportsman, Shelly has spent time on the prairie, from Saskatchewan to Kansas, hunting ducks, geese and pheasants.  He saw this work as an opportunity to give back and to learn new techniques that might work in Georgia.
        “There is not a lot of blackbird work back home,” he says.  “But there are lots of species of birds that we have problems with, and to use those propane cannons out there is going to be helpful.  We have problems with birds roosting on cell phone towers.  They can be really hard to move, but I think these propane cannons might help with that.”
        Now stationed in Pennsylvania, this is work Harrison has done before.  “I was on this project three years ago,” he recalls. “It’s how I got my start with Wildlife Services.  I was very thankful for the opportunity, so when the chance came up to come back and give back a little and help out the program, I jumped on it.  I was very happy to come back.”
        “Having these guys here has been great,” Halpin affirms.  “They know habits of wildlife, and there's a lot of overlap.  They bring a lot of experience just on how to deal with a management problem. Additionally, much of our work is about making contacts, connecting with landowners, and skills that overlap with the work they’re doing at home.”
        There are differences though.  The North Dakota prairie is a lot different than the landscape these technicians are used to.
        “It’s so open, they kind of get a little lost,” Halpin says.  “It’s kind of funny when they’re given a GPS point halfway across the state.  They start driving, and often they’ll call and say, ‘I’ve been driving for two hours and I’m not even halfway there yet.’  We tell them they’re on the right track and to keep going. That’s a lot different than what they’re used to!”
        “Seeing how other states run their program is helpful, too.  Now we can kind of mesh the way we do things to and utilize people’s ideas from up here and bring them back home — which is going to be really, really good,” Shelly adds.
        “This work in North Dakota parallels a lot with what I do,” Fuentes-Santos notes. “Coming here was an opportunity to learn new techniques; and it was also an opportunity to help our sister program in doing some good work.”
        The biggest difference for these technicians?  The weather.
        “It’s cold, and it’s getting colder!” said Fuentes-Santos in mid-fall.  “You have less sunlight than we do, and the weather has definitely taken a turn.
          “And the wind!  I didn’t get the memo about North Dakota winds!  One day it was very windy, and I told these guys it felt like a tropical storm, but cold!” — Jody Kerzman
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