Beating the Birds
Beating the Birds
The last thing a sunflower grower wants to think about in January is
blackbirds. For those suffering economic loss at the beaks of these
winged marauders, dealing with them in August or September is itself
sufficiently time consuming, tiresome and expensive.
Yet the most-effective blackbird control programs tend to be those
which are planned well ahead of late summer and involve a multi-faceted
management plan. Spending some time over winter developing that
strategy can pay dividends when those flocks of blackbirds start homing
in on your fields.
The obvious should be stated up front: Despite a quarter century of
effort involving many people, there's still no "silver bullet" for the
control of blackbirds in sunflower fields. No hybrid is immune to
blackbird depredation; no single management tool can deliver complete
Some of those tools quickly came and went (remember cracked corn doused
with Tabasco sauce?); others - propane boomers, Avitrol, shotguns,
rifles and hazing aircraft - are still here, providing at least some
help. The affected grower's best odds lie in utilizing any and all
weapons at his disposal.
Along with the above-noted measures, field placement can be a big
factor. Sometimes planting sunflower adjacent to sloughs, other
wetlands or groves of trees is unavoidable. But since such areas are
roosting and nesting sites for blackbirds, it should not be surprising
that they simultaneously serve as launching pads for hungry birds
looking for a meal.
Three other important weapons also are available to blackbird-plagued
sunflower growers. One - a federal cattail management program - has
been offered to Dakota growers (at no cost) for several years. The
second - a food-grade bird repellent called BirdShieldT - came on the
market just last year. Both can help producers gain the upper hand in
their battles with the birds. The third tool is Starlicide, for
blackbirds hanging around feedlots and dairies.
Over the past decade, the cattail management program administered by
the Wildlife Services Division of USDA's Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service (APHIS) has treated tens of thousands of North and
South Dakota cattail acres with an EPA-approved aquatic herbicide
("Rodeo"). The primary goal is to reduce the breeding habitat which
dense cattail stands provide for blackbirds. Simultaneously, waterfowl
and other wildlife also benefit when cattail-choked wetlands are "opened
APHIS contracts with private aerial applicators to do the spraying,
commonly via helicopter. The area to be sprayed must consist of at
least 10 continuous acres; acreage cannot be along free-flowing streams
and rivers; and larger eligible wetlands are given priority over smaller
ones. The actual herbicide treatment covers about 70% of the overall
acreage, typically in a strip pattern.
The APHIS cattail management program is operated free of charge to
participating landowners. Interested Dakota landowners* should contact
their state APHIS Wildlife Service office for details and to enroll.
The number at Bismarck, N.D., is 701-250-4405; for Pierre, S.D., call
Phil Mastrangelo, state Wildlife Services director for North Dakota,
encourages landowners to start planning now for participation in the
2002 cattail management program, rather than waiting until spring or
summer. (Spraying starts in late June and continues into August.) He
points out that while the program covered 5,800 North Dakota acres in
2001, Wildlife Services had to turn away some interested landowners
simply because of limited time and resources. The earlier a landowner
applies for the program, the better his or her chances of being
enrolled, Mastrangelo emphasizes.
The Wildlife Services official says the cattail-reducing effect of the
herbicide treatments can often still be seen up to six or seven years
later. Higher water levels in recent years also has helped extend
suppression of cattail regrowth.
Of course, landowners also can act on their own to manage cattails via
burning, disking or other means - including arranging themselves for the
spraying of Rodeo. Ward Eichhorst, who farms with his father and
father-in-law near the central North Dakota community of Coleharbor, has
already taken steps to reduce cattail density in wetlands near the
planned locations for his 2002 sunflower fields.
"The first thing we did, back in late August and early September, was
to get as close as we could with a sickle mower and cut some down,"
Eichhorst says. "Then, as areas started to dry up later in the fall, we
went out and burned those." Also, on ground which was sufficiently dry
and firm, "we took in a 30-foot disk and worked down the cattails."
Eichhorst applied for the APHIS cattail management program in 2001, but
was among those who were too late. He's already on the list for 2002
and expects his enrolled acreage will be sprayed.
Like many other bird-impacted producers, Eichhorst knows a
multi-faceted battle plan works best. He'll use a rifle and shotgun to
disperse birds, has had an aerial applicator "buzz" fields on several
occasions, and also has treated field portions with Avitrol in recent
years. The key, he stresses, "is to keep the pressure on the birds.
Don't let them get comfortable." Eichhorst also will consider using
BirdShield in 2002.
The McLean County producer may pull one more arrow from his quiver as
well over the coming weeks and months. He and his farming partners run
a cow-calf operation, and he know blackbirds tend to congregate around
feedlots. So Eichhorst is considering using Starlicide, a slow-acting,
restricted-use pesticide that is highly toxic to starlings and other
blackbird species, as a way to reduce those feedlot populations without
harming game birds and other nontarget species. (See article on page 26
for more on Starlicide.)
Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower
Association, points out that producers also can spray cattails with
Roundup when no water exists in the wetland. "In fact, the best
approach in the fall would be to spray them with Roundup, let the
chemical translocate in the cattails, and then burn, cut or till to keep
that area as dry as possible for the next spring," he suggests.
Kleingartner adds that if a producer is not enrolled in the APHIS
cattail spraying program but has cattails in standing water, he still
has the option of arranging for the application of Rodeo or other
labeled aquatic herbicides on his own to reduce cattail density. "It is
a good investment," he states.
BirdShield is a taste-aversion product which has been used
nationwide for years on fruit crops like cherries, blueberries and table
grapes. It recently gained EPA approval for use on corn and sunflower,
and was available commercially on 'flowers for the first time in 2001.
BirdShield is a biodegradable food-grade repellent (its active
ingredient is a component in Concord and other grapes) which is aerially
applied to the face of sunflower plant heads. The treated seeds are
distasteful to blackbirds, prompting them to leave the field in search
of other food sources. The product's effective life-span is in the
range of seven to 10 days, though weather may shorten (hot, sunny) or
lengthen (cool, overcast) that period.
Leonard Askham, BirdShield's developer and a prior Washington State
University animal control researcher, says the product was applied to
more than 100,000 sunflower acres in North Dakota alone last year. User
reports generally have been quite positive, he says. In those instances
where BirdShield was not as effective as hoped, the reason usually could
be traced to one of three circumstances, according to Askham:
(1) The aerial applicator was not sufficiently familiar with the
product and how to apply it. Spray nozzles were not adjusted properly,
resulting in larger droplets which could not be "sucked up" by the plane
wings' vortex to adequately cover the faces of inverted (hanging)
(2) Timing, i.e., growers waiting too long before ordering an
application. It is very important for BirdShield to be applied when the
birds begin showing up in a sunflower field. While the repellent will
discourage "new" feeding, it cannot undo damage already done.
(3) "Some growers have been unable to distinguish between 'old' and
'new' [blackbird] damage. Even if they get the repellent on early, or
use other hazing devices, there will still be some damage to the
'flowers that occurred previously. This can lead them to conclude that
what they are doing or using is not working - which may not be the
case." Askham defines old damage as empty sunflower head bracts that
are dark and "crusty," while the face of a newly damaged head will be
lighter in color, moist and softer when touched.
While he's obviously very pro-BirdShield, Askham concurs the product is
not a one-stop answer to blackbird depredation. He says it's more
effective than most traditional forms of blackbird control; but growers
are well-advised to supplement BirdShield treatments with harassment
tools like propane boomers and guns. Also, some of BirdShield's
effectiveness will depend on the intensity of bird appetites. "If you
have birds that are starving to death, they're going to eat anything,"
Harvey, N.D., producer Stan Buxa, who treated a sizable percentage of
his '01 sunflower acreage, agrees timing is critical when applying
BirdShield. "We found it worked best when you put it on as early as
possible after you see birds [in the field]," he reports. "Don't put it
on as a protectant; wait until the birds are starting to feed there."
That point underscores the importance of close field monitoring. Buxa
says those fields where BirdShield didn't appear to be as effective were
ones on which he fell behind with monitoring due to the busy small grain
harvest season. "We had some [sunflower acreage] where the birds were
already established, and it wasn't nearly as effective there," he
reports. "I also thought it worked a little better [when combined] with
harassment. We chased a lot of birds from petal drop on," Buxa adds.
"Monitoring is a real key," agrees APHIS' Phil Mastrangelo. "I know
it's difficult when growers are so busy with grain harvest; but often
they'll go back [after grain harvest], look at their sunflower fields
after petal drop, and the birds will have already been in there. And
it's always difficult to changes those feeding habits once they've been
established for a few weeks."
With a per-acre cost of $11 or $12 (product + application), many
growers will opt to treat field portions rather than the entire field.
In Buxa's case, he treated a couple fields in their entirety, "but
mostly it was blocks next to sloughs, cattails - wherever the feeding
pressure was highest," he says. Askham says his company has not yet
developed recommendations in that regard, but he does advise growers to
treat not only sunflower acreage, but also those adjacent wetlands,
waterways and tree groves which can serve as "loafing areas" for birds
when they are not actively feeding. - Don Lilleboe
* Though the USDA-APHIS cattail management program currently operates
only in the Dakotas, other states' Wildlife Services Division offices
also can be contacted for blackbird control information: Lakeland, Colo.
(303-969-5775); Manhattan, Kan. (985-532-1549); and Lincoln, Neb.
A Year-Round Blackbird Battle Plan
. If blackbirds have been a serious problem, try to locate the coming
season's sunflower fields away from sloughs and other wetlands, if
. Interested North and South Dakota landowners should be contacting
their state office of USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services for information on
enrolling acreage in the coming year's cattail management program.
. If conditions allow, cut or burn cattail areas near future sunflower
fields. (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.)
. Do you operate a feedlot or dairy where blackbirds tend to
congregate? Consider the use of pelleted Starlicide according to label
recommendations. Also, if neighbors have such operations, seek their
cooperation in a similar effort.
(See article on page 26.)
. Once conditions permit, consider disking dry cattail areas which
could serve as roosting sites later on.
Summer & Early Fall -
. As sunflower fields move toward petal drop, monitor those fields
regularly for the presence of blackbirds.
. If birds begin moving in, disperse or unsettle them by applying
BirdShield and/or setting up propane boomers. Gunfire, hazing aircraft
and other legal means of harassment also can be employed.
. If not enrolled in the APHIS Wildlife Services cattail management
program, consider arranging yourself for the application of a labeled
aquatic herbicide on cattail areas which harbor threatening populations
Late Fall -
. With wetland water levels often lower, this can be a good time to
cut, burn or disk cattail areas.
Feedlot Management of Blackbirds
Blackbirds often congregate around feedlots and dairies, taking
advantage of the food sources they can find there. This commonly occurs
in the spring as flocks move northward. Breaking into smaller groups,
they'll loiter around feedlots and dairies since other feed sources are
limited at that time of year.
"It is these blackbirds that will be setting up breeding grounds in
your wetlands," NSA's Larry Kleingartner observes. "They will raise
several young and will be the first to attack your ripening sunflower
fields in August. They'll also attract other migrators in the fall."
Spring deployment of Starlicide avicide is the most effective way to
control these particular blackbird populations. To use this product,
the birds must be baited onto the bait site. "Use a pre-bait (any
grain) first and place it on a wagon or other location inaccessible to
the cattle or other animals. Then, after a few days of baiting, switch
to Starlicide," Kleingartner says, "keeping it dry to ensure its
"Starlicide is a slow-acting product, so you are unlikely to see any
dead birds [on site]," he notes, adding that "dead blackbirds are safe
for scavengers since the active ingredient is excreted."
Starlicide is distributed by Earth City Resources of Bridgetown, Mo.
(phone 314-291-6720). It is a restricted-use pesticide; follow label
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