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Drones vs. Blackbirds

Wednesday, March 30, 2022
filed under: Birds

drone and two people on road between SF fields        Farming is not for the faint of heart. Each new growing season brings with it a new set of problems, be that insects, disease or weather.  Sunflower growers might add blackbirds to that list.  Flocks of molting and migrating blackbirds are a frustrating challenge for numerous growers, especially those in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota.
        Since the 1970s, sunflower growers have used a variety of methods to try and reduce damage caused by blackbirds. Tools in their fight against blackbirds have included shotguns, pyrotechnics, avian repellents and toxicants, not planting sunflower near roost sites, managing cattail-dominated wetlands, advancing harvest dates — and even planting wildlife conservation food plots.  In recent years, many farmers have added unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or more commonly called drones) to their toolboxes.
        Still, the birds remain.
        Those birds, and how to effectively manage them, have been the subject of dozens of research projects over the years — and, most recently, the topic of Mallory White’s thesis at North Dakota State University, Department of Biological Sciences.
        In collaboration with USDA Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center (USDA-WS-NWRC), White focused on how producers perceive different tools.  She surveyed farmers who grew sunflower in North and South Dakota in 2020.  Her research found almost 65% of producers believe cattail management to be one of the most effective blackbird management tools; but it’s a tool many don’t use (21% reported doing so).
        “Cattail management is expensive; and although methods such as herbicides, disking and burning are available, limitations exist,” explains Page Klug, supervisory research wildlife biologist at USDA-WS NWRC.  “Farmers have to coordinate with their neighbors to control cattails because often the cattails that impact your sunflower might not be on your land.  And depending on the weather, it can be difficult to implement.  In wet years, for example, many farmers may not implement cattail management due to limits on getting equipment into the marshes.  Habitat management is effective at a broader scale by dispersing birds across the landscape so one person does not get hit the hardest by bird damage.  But it takes coordination with neighbors, and you might not have control over the cattail that’s impacting your sunflower.”
        Surveyed growers listed lethal shooting and propane cannons as the most-used tools, although only half of the respondents viewed these tools as effective.  “Those techniques don’t require as much coordination as cattail management,” Klug says.  “They can be implemented quickly, and farmers can make decisions for their own fields.  And, propane cannons are one of the tools available through USDA Wildlife Services.”
        Now there’s a new tool that White’s research found most producers are willing to give a shot.  Eighty-three percent of growers surveyed say they are willing to allow unmanned aerial systems, also known as UAS or drones, on their property to haze blackbirds.  “That is encouraging news,” Klug says.  “We think it’s another tool that, when used with other tools, could help with blackbird management.”
        Surveyed farmers indicated they’re willing to allow UAS operations on their property.  They’d like those drones to haze and apply pesticides to protect sunflower crops from blackbirds.
        While most respondents (58%) had no opinion on the efficacy of drones, nearly a third of them said they think UAS are an ineffective tool.  Despite the hesitancy, only 5% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t allow UAS hazing of blackbirds on their property.  Klug indicates that those percentages illustrate a desperation to try anything to control blackbirds, and a frustration at a lack of efficacy for current available tools and methods.  Younger farmers are among those most willing to allow UAS in their fields, and USDA Wildlife Services has added them to their toolbox.
        “I think drones are a part of that integrated management,” Klug states.  “We’re researching now how the birds are responding to it.  There are limitations, and it is labor intensive and not as cost effective at this point, but in the future, there is potential.  It is hard to say where drone technology will go in terms of automation and cost, but that's why we're focusing on drones at this point.”
        Klug says drones have the ability to move across large fields, provide more flexibility than propane cannons, and can be integrated with other tools.   “You can add things to drones, like noises or lights or chemicals.  Being able to create the most hostile environment to blackbirds is key to blackbird management,” she adds. 
        Klug reminds producers, there is no one magic tool when it comes to controlling blackbirds.  Rather she says, producers should rely on a variety of tools.
        The USDA-WS-NWRC is continually testing and adding new tools to the toolbox.   For example, “research [is] being done on lasers in the fruit industry,” Klug notes. “They are mostly being used in berries, orchards and vineyards, and there’s still a lot of research to do.  But I think there is some potential.  Combining lasers and drones to haze birds away from sunflower or to break up roosting flocks of birds could be helpful.”
          Klug says there is still much research needed on lasers.  And, she says, commercial lasers are also expensive.  But if the price point can be lowered, they could one day be another weapon in the fight against blackbirds. — Jody Kerzman
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