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Bird Battle Primer

Thursday, April 15, 2004
filed under: Birds

Increasing day length and warmer temperatures isn¡¦t just a signal for farmers that spring planting is near. It¡¦s also nature¡¦s way of prompting blackbirds to begin their northward migration, and it¡¦s common for birds to begin arriving in April.

Thus, managing potential blackbird damage should be included in the host of planning decisions that sunflower growers make at the start of each growing season. Preparing for blackbirds early results in a more effective management plan for combating blackbird damage late summer and early fall.

Preplanning includes:

1) Ensuring propane cannons are working correctly prior to birds arriving in fields.

2) Leaving a lane wide enough to drive an ATV down to access all areas of the sunflower field. This allows access to birds moving to areas within the field to avoid harassment.

3) Looking closely at field location and avoiding areas where dense cattails stands exist.

4) Contacting individuals to conduct harassment or establishing a field monitoring program to look for birds in fields early in the plants development stage.

A successful damage management plan requires the use of a wide array of damage management strategies. No single strategy has proven to be completely effective in preventing blackbird damage. Just like repeatedly using a herbicide with the same mode of action to control weeds may soon lead to herbicide resistance, using one tool repeatedly for birds may prove to be less effective over time. Thus, it is an Integrated Pest Management approach involving the use of multiple tools and strategies that is most effective.

The majority of bird damage in sunflower begins shortly after petal drop while the seeds are setting and can continue until harvest. Research indicates that over 50% of damage occurs within the first 10 days of petal drop. Thus, early harassment is critical.

When used appropriately, propane cannons can supplement harassment with a shotgun or rifle. Cannons, to be most effective, should be placed on platforms to elevate them above the sunflower heads, which allows noise generated by the cannon to travel greater distances. Cannons must be relocated to different areas of fields every few days with the frequency of their firing changed on a regular basis. Cannons will be more effective in moving birds from fields when used as part of an active harassment program with a shotgun or rifle.

Other harassment tools can also be used to throw a new twist at the birds. Pyrotechnics operate under the same concept as a shotgun or rifle but vary in range and sound. Variation and persistence will keep the birds guessing, uneasy, and more likely to move away from fields.

A desiccant may be considered for an early harvest to remove ¡¥flowers before bird pressure becomes severe. Several repellents are also commercially available for use in sunflowers. Bird Shield is a liquid repellent that is aerially applied directly to sunflowers. Another repellent available for use in sunflower is Avitrol, also aerially applied directly to areas of fields where birds are feeding. Contact your local chemical dealer or USDA-Wildlife Services for details on these products.

Enroll in Cattail Management Program by July 1

Field placement can be a critical component of any damage management plan. Yet, the sunflower growing regions of the Upper Great Plains are well known for their numerous wetlands that dot the landscape. These potholes are often shallow which is ideal for cattail growth. Avoiding wetlands with dense cattails can be difficult. One program that has assisted producers who have dense stands of cattails is the USDA-Wildlife Services cattail management program.

This no-cost program targets cattails in wetlands that birds use before moving off into nearby sunflower fields. Through this program, Wildlife Services makes aerial applications of an EPA-approved aquatic herbicide to reduce cattail density. The removal of cattails helps to disperse large concentrations of blackbirds, which move from the cattails to feed in sunflower fields. Waterfowl and other wildlife also benefit when cattail-choked wetlands and large numbers of blackbirds are managed appropriately.

APHIS contracts with private aerial applicators to do the spraying, commonly via helicopter. Areas known to have severe problems with cattails and blackbirds will receive priority. The actual herbicide treatment covers about 70% of the overall acreage, typically in a strip pattern. Depending on the wetland ownership, producers can pay to have the other 30% sprayed as well; consult with APHIS officials about that option.

To receive the most benefit, cattails must be treated one year before sunflower is planted nearby. Effects from spraying are often noticeable for three to five years after treatment. Spraying begins in early July, so planning in advance to enroll is critical. Applications need to be received by July 1 to enroll in the program. Applications received after July 1 or after the start of the program cannot be enrolled in the current program, but are carried over to the following year.

Interested landowners should write or call the USDA Wildlife Services offices in Pierre, S.D. or Bismarck, N.D. for application materials.

In North Dakota, contact: USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services, 2110 Miriam Circle, Suite A, Bismarck, ND 58501, ph. 701-250-4405, email:

In South Dakota, contact: USDA/APHIS/Wildlife Services, 420 S. Garfield, Suite 300, Pierre, SD 57501, ph. 605-224-8692, email:

The USDA-APHIS cattail management program currently operates only in the Dakotas, where the need for cattail management is most critical. Wildlife Services Division offices can be contacted for blackbird control information in the following states: Lakewood, Colo. (303-236-5810) and Lincoln, Neb., (402-434-2340). ¡V Ryan Wimberly

Bird Control Products Online

Some companies now offer a new generation of electronic sound devices using digital technology to produce distress calls of specific birds. They are only effective against bird species whose distress calls are encoded on the microchip. Following are some companies on the Internet that market bird harassment products. The National Sunflower Association has not evaluated any of the products and cannot verify the success of their use.

Year-Round Blackbird Management Planning

  • Once conditions permit, destroy dry cattail areas (tillage, burning, or by other means) which could serve as nesting and roosting sites. Contact USDA Wildlife Services for spraying larger cattail wetlands. N.D: 701-250-4405. S.D: 605-224-8692.
  • At planting, consider north/south orientation if possible that may be less attractive for bird feeding.
  • Pay attention to weed control; weedy fields attract blackbirds.
Summer/early Fall
  • Keep weeds and insects under control, both attract blackbirds.
  • Control cattails with herbicides after middle July.
  • At bloom, disperse and repel birds that attempt to feed in sunflower fields with products such as boomers, guns, distress call recording, and BirdShield.
  • Harvest as early as possible to avoid damage from migrating birds.
  • Constantly monitor where blackbirds are roosting and if the wetland is large (10 or more acres) contact USDA Wildlife Services for larger-scale cattail management.
Late fall
  • With wetland water levels often lower, this can be a good time to cut, burn or disk cattail areas. (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.)
  • North and South Dakota landowners should contact their state office of USDA- Wildlife Services to enroll acreage in the coming year's cattail management program.
  • If conditions allow, cut or burn cattail areas near future sunflower fields.
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