Iowa Public Television

 

Farmers Using Falcons to Chase Pesky Birds

posted on August 15, 2008


BURBANK, Wash. (AP) -- Farmer Jim Lott needs to get rid of the starlings and sparrows feasting on the ripe fruit in his blueberry patch, and a grinning scarecrow wearing grandpa's old overalls just doesn't cut it anymore.

He's one of 17 farmers nationwide who have signed up for a new program that allows the use of predator birds to control pesky birds that damage or forage on crops.

"We never expected a whole lot of people to get them, but it did make sense to allow the use of raptors to control problem flocks of birds, agricultural pests, because in many ways, that's probably more environmentally sound than other methods people might use," said George Allen, Fish and Wildlife's branch chief of permits and regulations in Arlington, Va.

"I expect the kinds of uses will expand in the future, but it's still early in the game," he said.

Birds and other wildlife cause an estimated $944 million in damage in a single year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Damages program report in 2007.

In many places, farmers and wildlife managers have gotten creative in handling the problem. Pyrotechnics and lasers have been used to scare crows away from crops or seabirds and pigeons from airports. In North Dakota, where blackbirds cost sunflower growers an estimated $15 million annually, federal wildlife officials filled cages with captured blackbirds to lure their relatives to be trapped or killed.

Not all methods are lethal, but in 2004, the most recent year data was available, the Agriculture Department killed more than 2.7 million nuisance animals. The majority were starlings, nonnative birds introduced to North America from Europe, that destroy crops and contaminate livestock feed.

Northwest fruit and berry growers have tried countless ways to get rid of starlings: reflective ribbons, squawking bird recordings and booming propane cannons, firing at all hours and aggravating neighbors.

Enter the new regulations, which allow indigenous birds, largely protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, to be used for bird abatement in agriculture. In the past, only non-indigenous birds could be employed, raising a number of problems.

Nonnative birds weren't always attracted to the species the farmers were hoping to eradicate, and they have a tendency to just fly away, Allen said.

"We don't want to be introducing a nonnative species," he said. "If you lose a peregrine or prairie falcon that is native to North America, it's not as big an issue as losing something that's not native."

Lott is using aplomado falcons - most often found in South America, according to the Peregrine Fund - at his blueberry farm in southeast Washington.

They rarely catch the nonnative starlings, instead just being intended to scare them away, he said.

"In my mind, we're not really pushing any environmental laws or rules. It's just a natural thing, very natural, to the farm. We're not shooting guns," he said.

State wildlife officials in Washington work with about 60 growers in areas where starlings are considered a major problem. In four counties, they've begun trapping the birds, but starlings are highly prolific, nesting up to twice a year.

Roger Woodruff, Washington state director of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is concerned that using falcons to scare starlings away may just make them someone else's problem.

"You might move them from one blueberry patch to another. You might even move them out of the area," he said. "But falcons are a scare tactic, and we always want to use an integrated approach. We want to have a whole tool bag full of methods - any and all methods that are effective and safe - and I view falconry as one method that could have some use."


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