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Banding Together Against Blackbirds

Sunday, April 15, 2007
filed under: Birds

A group of Nelson County N.D. (east of Devils Lake) sunflower growers are coordinating their plantings this year to minimize the effects of blackbirds.

Nelson County extension agent Nels Peterson has been working with area growers to consider 'block planting' and utilizing various tools available to reduce blackbird damage. Nelson County used to be a leading sunflower production county, but the wet cycle that started in the early 1990s literally forced out the crop because of new wetlands resulting in more blackbirds. However, the dry 2006 season has eliminated lots of minor wet pockets and the cattails have been tilled up. “We are getting more of our land back now with drier conditions,” says Scott Nelson a producer from Lakota, ND.

Nelson and his neighbors will be using several programs provided by USDA's Wildlife Services, such as controlling cattails in deeper wetlands with a registered herbicide and establishing conservation lure plots. Both are USDA cost share programs.

The cattails provide blackbird habitat throughout the season and the elimination of these weeds can significantly reduce blackbird populations. The conservation lure plots are approximately 20 acre plots of sunflower designed to be feeding sites placed between a wetland and a block of sunflower fields.

Nelson and his neighbors have been forced out of producing sunflower for the last several years due to blackbirds. But he is optimistic that with the reduction in cattail areas and the combination of new USDA programs that he can once again be successful in producing the crop. "Sunflower has a natural fit in our area, and with the exciting new crop pricing opportunities we have to make this work,” said Nelson.

The Sunflower will provide an update on the Nelson County blackbird control efforts next winter.

USDA research has determined that more than 75% of the damage from blackbirds comes in the 2½ weeks after petal drop. The early blackbirds that are grouping are difficult to move, because they do not have mature feathers for longer distance flying. Thus, eliminate roosting habitat if possible, and most often that is cattails, which can be mowed, tilled and sprayed in most cases. A track-driven tractor works well in flattening cattails in marshy, hard-to-reach areas.

Birdshield® ( is a registered product for repelling blackbirds, although USDA research has demonstrated mixed product results. Some insecticides registered for use on sunflower such as Chlorpyrifos (Lorsban 4E) may have blackbird repellent activity, although none are registered specifically for that use. Nevertheless, if spraying for head insects, selecting a product like Lorsban 4E may help provide some early season repellency.

Harassment with noise makers such as commercial boomers and a high powered rifle or shot gun can help. Hazing blackbird roosts with noise or guns at night (at dusk or later) can be very unsettling for blackbirds and they will often move and seek a new roost.

Late in the summer when protecting seed in the sunflower head is critical, Chet and Charlie Edinger of Mitchell, S.D. hire teenagers to ride around on four wheelers near their sunflower fields to shoot at blackbirds, in the morning before the heat of the day comes on, and again in the evening.

They advise starting scouting and harassment efforts around seed fill, as the blackbirds like the soft outer shells. The Edingers say that propane cannons won’t solve the issue without physically shooting them – Chet says the distress call of wounded birds helps deter others.

Since blackbirds become used to feeding in a certain location, preventing a feeding pattern from starting is key. Mornings seem to be the most important time for deterrence, the Edingers observe; that’s when the birds are coming out of their rookeries, looking to go into the fields and feed. So if you can break that pattern before it starts, the blackbirds are more apt to go to different feed sources, they say.


Here is a review of some key programs to counter this pest:

Cattail Control: One of the best tools in minimizing damage is eliminating cattails. Cattails provide preferred nesting habitat in the spring and roosting habitat in the fall. USDA will again cost share (up to 70%) for the chemical control of cattails in standing water. The land owner/renter has the option of paying for the remaining 30%. Cattails are sprayed with an aquatic herbicide by helicopter allowing for precise application. Call 701-250-4405 in N.D. and 605-224-8692 in S.D. for applications.

Conservation Plots: USDA will also provide funding for conservation plots in high damage areas. The plots are planted near a wetland in an effort to lure blackbirds away from commercial fields. Trap cages will be at each site to eliminate local populations. Call 701-250-4469 ext. 3 for applications and further information.

Gravel Road Baiting: An EPA labeled avicide will be tested in a demonstration project this year on sites where blackbirds obtain grit. Call one of the above phone numbers for more information about these services. – Larry Kleingartner
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