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It’s That (Blackbird) Time of the Year

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
filed under: Birds

Hands-on assistance from USDA to growers experiencing blackbird problems is available for the 2010 season.

The National Sunflower Association has been working with U.S. senators from the Dakotas and Minnesota to ensure funding for this important program. The funding allows USDA’s Wildlife Services to place parttime employees in multi-county districts throughout the production region that is most vulnerable to bird damage.

Propane cannons with automatic timers are provided on loan to growers, and pyrotechnics may be provided as well, depending upon the situation. The USDA personnel will assist in placing the cannons in key areas around the field, based on their best experience.

Phil Mastrangelo, USDA Wildlife Service state director in Bismarck, N.D., manages the program and states that the effectiveness of cannons can be enhanced when elevated on a platform or trailer. “Moving the cannons every three days will be helpful as well, so if they are on a trailer, it makes that process much easier for the grower,” Mastrangelo says. Periodic use of live ammunition in the field will greatly enhance the cannons as well. “Federal and state law allow producers to shoot birds that are damaging crops; the addition of lethal control reinforces the effect of any of the frightening devices”.

Mastrangelo reminds producers that there are two types of blackbird populations. The early damage comes from what are called “local” birds comprised of local breeding birds and young hatched birds. All these birds are missing wing feathers because of their annual molt. Most of their damage occurs during early petal drop into mid-September. These flocks are usually small but difficult to move because of their inability to fly longer distances. The objective with this population is to move them through harassment to other feeding sources such as small grain stubble. This is where the cannons and periodic shooting can be most successful.

The other population consists of the “migrators,” which begin to form larger flocks for their southern movement. That usually happens around mid-September or when a distinct weather shift occurs. The migrators are easier to move, but their flock numbers can be considerable. Substantial damage can occur when a large flock settles into a field.

Mastrangelo will deal with these larger flocks by sending in multiple personnel to harass the birds. “We station one or two persons in the sunflower field and another one or more persons near the wetland,” he explains. “In this way, the birds are harassed in their preferred feeding locations and roosting wetlands and usually decide to move on.”

The key to making this program work, Mastrangelo emphasizes, is for the farmer and his USDA contact to form a partnership and be in close communication. “If the grower is all of a sudden getting hit with huge bird numbers, we need to know that as soon as possible in order to redirect personnel.” He adds that working with the grower, the USDA personnel want to identify wetlands that have lots of cattails and are a great roosting area for blackbirds. “We want to eliminate those cattails through our cattail spraying program. That is one of the best long-term solutions,” says Mastrangelo.

Dr. George Linz of the USDA National Wildlife Research Center says that repellents have their place as well. “We have tested a number of repellents with mixed results — which is not uncommon due to variables of rainfall, temperature and bird behavior, Linz says. He recommends using them if the grower finds that they work.

Linz’s group is field testing a compound that appears to have good potential. That testing is being conducted in netted cages to determine rates and residue.

Linz adds that more chemical companies are looking at the bird repellent market. “It is a large untapped market,” he notes. “Many berry, vine and fruit crops get hit hard by bird depredation. These are high-value crops, and netting is usually not economical.” — Larry Kleingartner
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