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Drones: New Weapon in Blackbird Battles?

Monday, January 30, 2017
filed under: Birds

Beau Ferguson holds the Phantom 3 drone his parents bought him for his birthday last year — and which his dad later used to harass blackbirds in his 2016 sunflower crop. 
     Dan Ferguson wears many hats. He operates a garbage service, raises 60 head of cattle, and farms about 130 acres near Lakota, N.D. He’s also a husband and a father—and now, he’s ready to up his farming acres.
       “My uncle retired, so I’m going to take over his land,” Ferguson explains. “I’ve been watching my uncle farm, and I’m excited to do the farming now. Some people are hesitant, but I’m ready. I’ve already purchased a new planter, and I’ll have about 1,500 acres next year.”
       He plans to plant high-oleic sunflower on some of those acres.
       “I grew ’flowers this past year. We averaged about 1,300 pounds,” Ferguson says. “We deal with so much water up here, and that affected the yields. They were nice-looking sunflower, and I expected the yield to be 2,500 to 3,000 pounds.  It wasn’t what I hoped for, but we still made money off it. They are a durable crop. I liked them.”
       Ferguson is no stranger to sunflower. His dad and a neighbor used to grow ’flowers in the 1980s. Like so many others near their northeastern North Dakota farm, blackbirds forced sunflower out of the crop rotation.  But this time, Ferguson has technology on his side. He’s using drones to scare off blackbirds.
       “We actually bought a drone for our son’s birthday in July and let him and his brother do most of the operating,” says Ferguson. “It wasn’t a huge investment. We spent about $500 on a Phantom 3 drone, and the boys used it to scare off the birds. I found it works really well to check crops, too. From the road, the fields looked ready; but when I put the drone up and could get a better look at the fields, I realized some fields weren’t actually ready. It saved me a lot of time. It was a pretty handy tool.
       “When I was a kid we’d work really hard to build remote control airplanes and then they’d crash all the time. This drone is a much better tool than those ever were. I think they’ll be really handy in the future, and I plan to use them for more things on the farm.”
       Dan Ferguson obviously isn’t the only one who sees potential for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) in farming — and for battling blackbirds. They are the focus of several ongoing projects by researchers with the North Dakota State University Department of Biological Sciences, in cooperation with the USDA-APHIS-WS National Wildlife Research Center in Fargo, N.D. One of those studies found that there is potential for drones to provide effective blackbird harassment in fields.
       Page Klug is a research wildlife biologist with the USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center. She says North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole Region, which covers 36,760 square miles, has an estimated 547,341 acres of cattails, 720,000 acres of sunflower—and 25 million blackbirds in a given year.
       “The damage to sunflower by blackbirds in North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole Region is estimated at $3.5 million every year,” Klug says. “Many things have been tried over the years to control blackbirds. We have been working to optimize application strategies of avian repellents and to develop the best practices for unmanned aircraft systems as scare devices. The thing with repellents is they have to be effective, but not affect the safety of the food, for the birds and for humans. If birds are not provided an alternative food resource, management—whether that’s with UAS or repellents—to reduce sunflower [damage] will not be as effective.”
       So far, repellents have proven effective in the lab; but Klug says they haven’t been as successful in the field. Her group is working on different application methods, including the use of drop nozzles.
       “The repellent must meet the face of the sunflower in order to be effective. We are hoping the drop nozzles help with that,” explains Klug. “Birds have to ingest the repellent before they learn the negative effects. Thus, repellent has to be applied to the area of the sunflower that is manipulated by the birds. The repellent also needs to be applied around the R6 growth stage. Thus, the producer-preferred aerial application of repellent is not effective. And, it’s important to remember that if they’re hungry enough, birds will eat sunflower, even if it has repellent on it.  They have to eat something, so there’s also the idea of using decoy crops, to give them an alternative food source.”
       As for unmanned aircraft systems, Klug says there are many variables to consider, including the type of UAS (quadcopter vs. fixed wing), shape, speed, flight dynamics, and even the color of the UAS.
       “We need to figure out what is scariest for the birds. What can we use to scare them out of sunflower fields?  There are lots of benefits to using UASs; they are dynamic and they can move, unlike propane cannons which are stationary. But there are drawbacks, too, the biggest ones being FAA regulations and [the need to have] an operator, so they can become very labor intensive.”
       In one study, researchers, including Klug and NDSU’s Lucas Wandrie, focused on how birds react when approached by drones. They used different hazing approaches by fixed-wing and rotary-wing platforms. There are many different platforms available with different capabilities. The fixed-wing aircraft used in this study had a maximum flight speed of 40 mph and could face a maximum wind resistance of 30 mph, while the rotary-wing could fly up to 49 mph in winds up to 22 mph. The fixed-wing machine’s minimum flight altitude was 170 feet, but the rotary-wing had no minimum altitude. Maximum flight time varied greatly, from 60 minutes for the fixed-wing to just 18 minutes for the rotary-wing.
       Researchers tested both machines on captive birds at the NDSU Agronomy Seed Farm. They wanted to know if birds react to oncoming vehicles the same as they do to predators. Their study focused on how birds react when approached by UAS. They also tested free-ranging birds at privately owned sunflower and corn fields. After testing both captive and free-range birds at a variety of altitudes, they found there is great potential for drones to help in blackbird control.
       But there likewise are caveats.
       “Integrating some sort of sound, like a predator sound or a gunshot, might make the machines more effective, but there are many regulations to consider as well,” says Wandrie.
       Regulations put in place by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) require the operator of the UAS to have a visual line of sight of the UAS at all times. That makes using a UAS labor intensive; producers don’t always have the time needed to use a drone. Klug says better technology could change that, but even then, there is more research to be done on how to use them most effectively.
       “The potential is there,” she says. “But there are a lot of unknowns at this point, including when to use it, how often to use it, when to start, do you use the UAS to keep the birds out of the field in the first place, or can you use it to scare them away once they’re there?  There are a lot of questions to answer.”
       There’s also the question of what type of UAS works best.
       “Quadcopters are easy to operate, but because of their shape may not elicit as much of a response from birds as a fixed-wing that looks like a natural predator,” Klug observes. “We want to compare the blackbird response to a rotary wing and a fixed wing that resembles a hawk to see which gets a stronger response. In developing best practices for UAS, we want to combine ease of use for producers and maximum effectiveness for hazing birds.”
       Meantime, Dan Ferguson will continue taking steps to keep blackbirds out of his sunflower fields. For Ferguson, that’s a combination of cattail management and drones.
         “The drone was really helpful for us,” Ferguson reiterates.  “We’ll keep using that.”
— Jody Kerzman     
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