Effective Blackbird Battle Strategies
Thursday, March 21, 2019
filed under: Birds
Emmons County, N.D., sunflower producer James Silvernagel has a unique approach when it comes to battling blackbirds.
“I typically use cannons, but I don’t set up the cannons up where the sunflower [fields] are,” he explains. Instead, Silvernagel figures out where the birds are watering. That’s where he sets up his cannons.
“That works well for me,” says Silvernagel. “If I make things miserable for them while they’re roosting, they’re going to find a different area to water and a different area to feed.”
Silvernagel has been using this approach since he started getting cannons from USDA/APHIS Wildlife Services. He also usually puts one cannon right by his sunflower, but he says the birds quickly get used to it and just move to the other side of the field. Harassing them before they get to his fields has proven most effective.
But Silvernagel doesn’t rely on just cannons to keep the blackbirds out of his fields. “I use whistlers to get the birds up, and then I use a rifle to get them up and out of the field,” he explains. “I use a rifle rather than a shotgun because they don’t like the sonic crack of a rifle; I’ve found that the shotgun isn’t loud enough. The whistler gets them up, and then the sonic crack of the rifle gets them moving.”
That multi-tool approach is exactly what John Paulson, State Director of Wildlife Services says is the secret to controlling blackbirds. “Blackbirds are one of the most challenging species to deal with just because of the masses that come in and the difficulty of managing them,” says John Paulson, state director and certified wildlife biologist with the USDA’s Wildlife Services program in Bismarck.
Last season, Silvernagel had four cannons from Wildlife Services. They did their job, keeping the birds out of his 320 acres of sunflower. But Silvernagel says in the past five years the number of birds in his area of south central North Dakota has increased significantly.
“Many of the guys that were growing sunflower here have stopped. They say it’s because of the birds; but I say the birds are going to be here anyway, and if they can’t eat sunflower, they’ll feast on another crop. They’re changing their eating patterns. I’ve seen them going into the corn, and I’ve heard of others who have had them in their soybean fields. They’re migratory birds, so they’re eating on the way. If there’s no sunflower, they’re still going to eat.”
“We’ve had blackbirds around our farm like I’ve never seen before,” says fellow Emmons County producer Tom Bernhardt. “We used to be in sort of a sweet spot where we didn’t really have blackbird trouble to speak of. But now, when the birds find a sunflower field, they’re all over it.”
Bernhardt has been growing sunflower since the early ’90s. It is a regular part of his rotation, despite the increase in blackbirds. “Sunflower is a consistent money maker. Even when other commodity prices have dropped, they seem to stay more stable,” he explains. “We have been no-till for years, and we like to plant our spring wheat into sunflower stalks. That broadleaf does a nice job of preventing disease.”
Now, he’s looking for the most effective way to prevent blackbird damage. For Bernhardt, that’s proven to be propane cannons — and this past year he added the cannon plates designed by the staff at Wildlife Services.
“If you monitor the birds and get those cannons out right away, it seems to aggravate them enough so they don’t get too comfortable and move on quickly. I think the stands just make them even more effective. The sound seemed to travel farther, and they functioned better because they weren’t so low to the ground. That kept the mice out of them, too.”
Bernhardt says where he plants sunflower also makes a big difference when it comes to birds.
“We have been a no-till operation since the early 1990s, and our rotation is pretty much dictated by the subsequent crop that we put in that field. For example, we like to plant spring wheat after sunflower because it does so well in the sunflower stalks. But there are some fields we just know we aren’t going to plant sunflower in. We have some land that is adjacent to cattail areas, and when we planted sunflower there our yield was zero because the birds got to them. We don’t plant sunflower there anymore.”
Paulson says that’s an important factor producers should keep in mind as they plan out what they’ll plant —and where — this spring. But he and his staff have a new idea that they think could help keep the birds away as well.
“We know that producers have a lot of things to consider when it comes to planting, but we want to throw one more thing at them,” says Paulson. “We’d like to see producers leave a strip unseeded when they’re planting sunflower; or, when the sunflower is short, drive over it so there is a path. A path about five-feet wide, just the width of an ATV, would give better access to the middle of the field.
“This allows not only us but also the producers to be able to get to the middle of the field and put a cannon in the middle of the field on a cannon plate where it can be the most effective. It allows them to drive down, shoot pyrotechnics, shotguns periodically in the fall when the birds are coming through. If we focus on the middle of the fields with added harassment, we can more effectively get the birds to move on. When we’re doing all this harassment on the side of the fields only, we’re just pushing them deeper into the field.”
It is an idea Bernhardt says just might work. “That makes a lot of sense. We have had some fields in the past that have had waterways where we haven’t planted in middle of fields, and we know that helps,” he says. “I never thought of leaving a strip unplanted.”
Paulson says it’s just one more tool that could help prevent bird damage. He says the secret is having several different tools and using an integrated approach to blackbird management.
Drones are one of the newest tools his crews are working with now. “I was impressed with how the drones helped move the birds last fall. I think it’s an innovative tool we need to keep working with,” Paulson notes.
“Another thing producers should keep in mind is planting earlier rather than later.”
As Silvernagel plans his 2019 crops, he says sunflower will be in the rotation — and he’ll keep his fingers crossed the birds stay away. He says an early plant date gives him a peace of mind.
“Last year we planted on May 20. That’s a pretty good date for us; any earlier there’s a chance of frost. But we like to plant by then so we are harvesting by mid-September or early October. The birds aren’t as much of an issue then.”
In 2018, additional funding allowed Paulson to add temporary staff to help farmers in the battle against blackbirds. One of the busier areas of the state for blackbird damage was Emmons County, where both Bernhardt and Silvernagel farm. Paulson is hopeful for continued support again this year so that his staff with Wildlife Services can continue to help producers keep birds out of sunflower fields across the state. — Jody Kerzman