Protecting Crops With Predators Instead Of Poisons

By luring predatory birds to farms, farmers can reduce the need to use poisons to keep insects, rodents and other pests in check.


Published:

Photo courtesy of MSU

Summer carloads of sweet-toothed tourists, flush with cash and seeking local pies and jams, are an economic godsend in northwest Michigan’s cherry-growing region. Other hungry visitors are less welcome — voles, weevils, fruit flies, grasshoppers and pest birds do significant damage to local crops.

Cedar waxwings, American robins and other birds alone cost the state’s tart and sweet cherry growers more than US$4.3 million a year. To protect their bottom lines from nuisance birds, fruit farmers deploy a quirky arsenal.

Propane cannons frighten flocks (and neighbors) with epic blasts. Speakers blare recordings of bird distress calls. Balloons with menacing eyes loom overhead. But the clever birds soon learn these are empty threats. Their feast resumes.

Since the early 1990s, though, some local orchardists have had better success by enlisting natural helpers with real bite: American kestrels, small falcons that eagerly move in when farmers put up nest boxes and prey on a range of agricultural pests. For farmers, the predators provide an important service on the cheap. And for kestrels — North America’s most widespread falcon, but a species whose numbers have plunged by nearly half in the past half-century — the setup provides a cozy home and ideal habitat.

Cherry growers aren’t the only ones forming avian alliances. In a recent paper in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, Michigan State University (MSU) scientists reviewed past research and concluded that farmers who add structures or manage their land to attract birds, bats and other vertebrates can boost profits, reduce pesticide use and conserve vulnerable wildlife.

“There are species out there that, particularly when they live in agricultural landscapes, are providing services for us, and sometimes we’re not even aware of them,” says Catherine Lindell, an MSU biologist and lead author of the paper. “The more we understand about these services they provide, the more we might be able to enhance those services by giving them the resources they need.”

From New Zealand To California

Lindell and her co-authors note several examples. When scientists introduced a threatened, native falcon species to New Zealand vineyards, the raptors drove off 80 percent of non-native pest birds and reduced the number of grapes removed by 95 percent, saving some vintners more than US$300 per hectare. Other research suggests that European kestrels and barn owls might help control rodents on Spanish farms.

Research out of Europe suggests that barn owls can help reduce populations of crop-damaging voles on farms. Photo courtesy of Mark BrowningRaptors aren’t the only birds with pest-control benefits: Adding nest boxes for great tits, a small songbird, cut caterpillar damage in half on some apple orchards in the Netherlands; areas near bluebird boxes on a California vineyard had significantly fewer leaf-eating insects.

Other researchers are investigating ways to manage overall agricultural landscapes to attract beneficial birds. Studies show, for example, that weaving natural habitat like hedgerows into farmland can lure birds that gorge on harmful insects.

Since 2012, Lindell and graduate student Megan Shave have been working to better understand the role raptors can play in supporting Michigan’s fruit industry. Preliminary results show pest birds are significantly less abundant in kestrel-guarded orchards. They say the avoided crop damage is enough to generate US$2.2 million a year in additional revenue if all the state’s sweet cherry growers added nest boxes.

Unlike balloons or loud noises, kestrels are a genuine threat whose mere presence is enough to scare off pest bird flocks, says cherry grower Jim Nugent, who installed a nest box on his roughly 40-acre (20-hectare) Suttons Bay, Michigan, orchard in the mid-’90s. It has been occupied almost every year since.

“Our problems with birds have really dropped off,” he says. “They [kestrels] are quite effective, and it doesn’t require much management on the grower’s part.”

Fewer Pesticides And Poisons

The idea isn’t new; the U.S. Department of Agriculture established an “economic ornithology” unit in the 1880s to study birds for pest control. But that body was disbanded in 1940, around the time synthetic pesticides like DDT were hitting the market and being hailed as wonders for controlling insects that spread disease and ruined crops.

By the 1960s, scientists were beginning to understand the serious ecological effects of those chemical compounds. Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 book Silent Spring detailed how DDT built up in birds and made their eggshells too thin to protect chicks, and its title raised the prospect of a future deprived of birdsong. A decade later, DDT was banned, and populations of raptors and other birds began to rebound.

But other pesticides hit the market. More than 1 billion pounds (500 million kilograms) of pesticides are used in the U.S. each year, and more than 5.6 billion pounds (2.5 billion kilograms) are used globally. Scientists increasingly point to potential health hazards of this widespread use — as certain pesticides have been linked to genetic changes, cancers, endocrine disruption, nerve disorders, mental health issues and reproductive problems.

In response, some food producers and researchers have grown more interested in the on-farm benefits birds can provide.

At this point, it’s not clear how much pesticide use could be offset by partnering with natural predators, says Lindell, who describes beneficial birds as “one tool in the toolkit” of an integrated pest management approach.

Raptors like this kestrel are “one tool in the toolbox” of integrated pest management, says Michigan State University biologist Catherine Lindell. Photo courtesy of Catherine LindellHowever, she and others caution that if farmers are drawing in predators, they should avoid toxics to control pests, since the poisons can work their way up the food chain and kill birds and other animals. A study by the state of California found that three-quarters of raptors, bobcats, coyotes and other wildlife tested positive for rodenticides.

“People love to think that we’ve got to have poison in the toolbox, and we say you can’t have both,” says Lisa Owens Viani, director of Raptors Are the Solution, a California-based project of the nonprofit Earth Island Institute that works to stop rodenticide use. “We think it’s unfair to put up an owl box and lure an owl to a place where there’s poison being used. The bottom line: Do we want them to help us control rodents, or do we want to poison them?”

Owens Viani says that, at least in some cases, raptors alone are enough to control rodents. She pointed to a recent study by California’s Ventura County Watershed Protection District, which works to control burrowing rodents that can degrade levees and dams. In findings published last December, the agency reported that levee sections where workers had installed perches to attract raptors had substantially less damage from ground squirrels than areas treated with rodenticides. The report called for replacing the poisons with raptors systemwide, noting that the county would save US$7,500 a year for each mile of levee.

In another California study, barn owls essentially formed a colony at a research site after nest boxes were installed, with the population at one point reaching 102 owls on a 100-acre (40-hectare) vineyard. The birds killed more than 30,000 rodents over the course of three breeding seasons, for a fraction of the cost of trapping or poisoning them, says lead researcher Mark Browning, a biologist formerly with the Pittsburgh Zoo who now owns the Barn Owl Box Company, which sells the nest boxes.

That suggests, at least in some situations, natural predators could make rodenticides unnecessary, he says.

“The wonderful aspect of utilizing an animal such as the barn owl is that they do their work without any prodding,” Browning says. “You don’t have to wake them up in the morning or tell them they’re not moving fast enough that day. And the pressure that barn owls exert on a population is unrelenting, particularly at the very time that rodents are building their numbers.”

As a retired district horticulturalist for MSU’s agricultural extension service, Nugent says kestrel nest boxes are one reason he’s seen his fellow growers easing off of rodenticides to kill voles, mouselike rodents that can kill fruit trees by gnawing on their bark and roots.

Migrating kestrels should return to Nugent’s farm in a month or so, where they’ll find fresh wood shavings he added when he cleaned out the nest box in the fall. That annual chore is pretty much the only upkeep needed to keep his winged workers on the job. “It’s not a very big project,” he says. “There just isn’t a downside.”

Andy McGlashen is a freelance journalist based in Michigan. He is a past editorial fellow at Audubon magazine and a graduate of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State. His work has appeared online in Sierra, Scientific American, Civil Eats, Midwest Energy News, The Daily Climate, Environmental Health News and other sites, and in newspapers around Michigan. twitter.com/AMcGlashen

This article was republished from Ensia and originally appeared at Environmental Health News

See also:
Would Rachel Carson Eat Organic?
Pesticide Safety Questioned By Pregnancy Research

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

November 21, 2019

This last full day of the Scorpio Sun has a grounded feel. The Moon is in meticulous Virgo. Morning lunar trines to Saturn and Pluto prompt a dedicated work effort. Productivity is likely to be well above average. However, mid-afternoon sees the Moon…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

November 2019

“Bringing Energy into Matter” Learn basics of Tachyon, Zero Point Energy and Quantum Physics Tachyonized products and healing tools for purchase Participate in a seeing...

Cost: Free (preregistration is required)

Where:
The Sanctuary for Celestial Empowerment
10 Grassmere Avenue
Suite #300
West Hartford, CT  06110
View map »


Sponsor: Psychotherapy Healing Services, LLC
Telephone: 860-798-6176
Contact Name: Celeste E. Mattingly, LCSW
Website »

More information

Beaver Moon: Herbs for Aches and Pains Using Anti-Inflammatory Herbs. Refreshments served. To RSVP contact herbalist Rachel Ross, RN CNM. Visit our Facebook page for the latest...

Where:
Hillside Herbals
Jefferson, MA


Telephone: (508) 847-8615
Website »

More information

Come shine with us! Join us in harmony and in our goal to bring the light of Spiritualism forward to all those who are searching.

Where:
VFW Post 2597
775 Boston Rd, Rt 3A
Billerica, MA
View map »


Sponsor: The Spiritualist Fellowship Church Of New England
Website »

More information

A beautiful collection of messages from Jeshua Ben Joseph (Jesus) that will transform your life, as it did his. Coming together to study these teachings, to ponder, to savor, to deepen our...

Cost: $25 per class

Where:
Heart and Soul Holistic Healing Center
130 Massapoag Avenue
Sharon, MA  02067
View map »


Sponsor: Heart and Soul Holistic
Telephone: 781-258-9942
Contact Name: Barbara Ann Strassman
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Give Yourself the gift of Reiki this holiday season! Have you always wanted to learn Reiki but didn’t want to commit to a full day workshop?  This is the class for you! Reiki...

Cost: $175

Where:
Center for Inner Wellness
26B Main street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Atend a public hearing for S665 at the Massachusetts State House to protect holistic practitioners. This is the second bill that urgently needs your attention now. S665 will provide a safe...

Where:
Massachusetts State House
24 Beacon St
Rooms A1 and A2
Boston, MA  02133
View map »

More information

With Peyton Pugmire, spiritual intuitive and Certified Angel Card Reader Tuesdays, 9/24, 10/22, 11/19, 12/17, 6pm–8pm You are intuitive beyond belief. This is your soul’s...

Cost: $40

Where:
Creative Spirit
80 Washington Street
Marblehead, MA  01945
View map »


Telephone: 781-797-0389
Contact Name: Creative Spirit
Website »

More information

Give Yourself the gift of Reiki this holiday season! Have you always wanted to learn Reiki but didn’t want to commit to a full day workshop?  This is the class for you! Reiki...

Cost: $175

Where:
Center for Inner Wellness
26B Main street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

Free Evidence-Based Holistic Health Education Program at Wilbraham Senior Center The H.E.A.R.T. Program® (Health Empowerment and Real Transformation), created and instructed by Michelle...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wilbraham Senior Center
45 Post Office Park, #4502
Wilbraham, MA  01095
View map »


Sponsor: Harmony Way
Telephone: 413-636-2475
Contact Name: Michelle Caron
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Give Yourself the gift of Reiki this holiday season! Have you always wanted to learn Reiki but didn’t want to commit to a full day workshop?  This is the class for you! Reiki...

Cost: $175

Where:
Center for Inner Wellness
26B Main street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

The Fertility Awareness Meetup provides women with an opportunity to learn about and discuss natural birth control options and fertility. This is a space to connect with peers, access information,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Cambridge Women's Center
46 Pleasant St
Cambridge, MA  02139
View map »


Sponsor: AC Fertility Awareness
Telephone: 617-899-7624
Contact Name: Anna Churchill

More information

The online dating scene can be exciting, overwhelming, and also annoying. However, it can truly be worth the hassle if you end up finding your ideal match! Just like Kerri did! Come to this...

Cost: $25

Where:
Awaken Holistic Counseling Services
2 Liberty St., Unit 2L
Newburyport, MA  01950
View map »


Sponsor: Awaken Holistic Counseling Services, LLC
Telephone: 978-255-7893
Contact Name: Kerri Morrison
Website »

More information

Broga® is an officially licensed brand of fitness infused yoga geared for men but open to all. With instructors around the world, Chuck was trained by the brands creator and went onto work as...

Cost: $20

Where:
SSFIT STudio
339 Boston Post Rd, Suite 6A
Sudury, MA  01776
View map »


Sponsor: SSFIT STUDIO
Telephone: 508-904-7171
Contact Name: Steven
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Come detox, relax and renew yourself for the fall in our sanctuary! We have an intimate gathering of great readers and healers providing services at sampler rates to enjoy their services while...

Cost: $60: 3 Pack Service Special; $25: Single Service

Where:
Healing Power Of Flowers—Heaven and Earth
68 Stiles Rd
Salem, NH  03079
View map »


Sponsor: The Healing Power of Flowers - Heaven and Earth
Telephone: 603-275-7688
Contact Name: Stacey Smith
Website »

More information

Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani (My journey from cancer, to near death, to true healing) In this truly inspirational memoir, Anita Moorjani relates how, after fighting cancer for almost four...

Cost: Free

Where:
Open Circle Acupuncture & Healing
411 West Main Street, Suite 2R (rear of building)
Northborough, MA  01532
View map »


Sponsor: Open Circle Acupuncture & Healing
Telephone: 508-393-1212
Contact Name: Kim Flaherty
Website »

More information

Give Yourself the gift of Reiki this holiday season! Have you always wanted to learn Reiki but didn’t want to commit to a full day workshop?  This is the class for you! Reiki...

Cost: $175

Where:
Center for Inner Wellness
26B Main street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

At our free Divorce Boot Camp, you will learn how to manage the legal, financial, real estate, mortgage and personal issues related to divorce. About this Event: Are you considering, going...

Cost: Free

Where:
Leading Edge Real Estate
2 Mount Vernon Street
Winchester, MA  01890
View map »


Sponsor: Vesta: Redefining Divorce
Telephone: 508-744-6014
Contact Name: Deanna Coyle
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Give Yourself the gift of Reiki this holiday season! Have you always wanted to learn Reiki but didn’t want to commit to a full day workshop?  This is the class for you! Reiki...

Cost: $175

Where:
Center for Inner Wellness
26B Main street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

Four week series for girls ages 11 and up with Leigh Sloss This series of classes will focus on some of the most effective yoga and mindfulness skills for reducing stress and anxiety.  In a...

Cost: Series: $75; Drop in rate $20

Where:
YogaLife Institute of NH
6 Chestnut Street
Lower Level
Exeter, NH  03833
View map »


Sponsor: YogaLife Institute of NH
Contact Name: Alice Bentley
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Give Yourself the gift of Reiki this holiday season! Have you always wanted to learn Reiki but didn’t want to commit to a full day workshop?  This is the class for you! Reiki...

Cost: $175

Where:
Center for Inner Wellness
26B Main street
Chester, MA  01011
View map »


Sponsor: Center for Inner Wellness
Telephone: 413-315-1133
Contact Name: Maureen Suriner
Website »

More information

Learn to overcome spinal tensions through therapeutic postures, designed to decompress your spine and relieve pain. Taught by a certified yoga therapist, classes bring you through poses...

Cost: 5/$50

Where:
Bliss Through Yoga
484 Bedford St
East Bridgewater, MA  02333
View map »


Telephone: 508-331-3564
Contact Name: Janice O'Brien
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags