Pests

August 7, 2021

I got a feed yesterday from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that cited an article by Greg Breining in Living Bird magazine (was that convoluted or what?) concerning a switch from pesticides to birds to control insects and voles in America’s orchards and vineyards.  The lead was a cherry orchard in Michigan’s Lee­lanau County.  The area is ideal and grows nearly half of the US production of tart-cherries, along with sweet cherries.  The problem has always been pests.  As the fruit ripens a variety of insects, deer mice and voles, and flocks of fruit-eating birds cover the orchards to feast on the fruit.  Michigan is not alone in facing these pests.  A 2013 study showed that fruit crop damage from birds ranged from $104 per hectare in Oregon tart cherries to $7,267 per hectare in Washington Honeycrisp apples.  Yield losses to rodents and birds in several high-value crops in California were estimated at 5% or greater.  I just thought the birds were bad for my strawberries.

The name Kestrel is given to several members of the falcon genus, Falco.  Kestrels are most easily distinguished by their typical hunting behavior which is to hover at a height of around 35-65 feet (10–20 meters) over open country and swoop down on prey, usually small mammals, lizards, or large insects.  The American kestrel is the only New World species termed “kestrel”.  Molecular data and morphological peculiarities support this is not a kestrel at all, and is genetically related to the larger American falcons such as the Aplomado falcon (Falco femoralis), the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and Prairie falcon (Falco mexicanus).  Regardless, they are effective in taking care of pests.

The Michigan State University Extension Service began recommended putting up nesting boxes to attract American Kestrels to control fruit-eating pests during the 1990’s.  The kestrel’s resulted in immediate results and the pests declined.  The success in Michigan has been duplicated as farmers, vineyard, and orchard owners enlisted wild birds across America, including raptors and songbirds.  The landowner will erect nest boxes, install raptor perches, or plant inviting native cover to attract the birds.  The birds are a natural way to control the pests and are less expensive than other traditional methods.  Birds are also environmentally benign, while poisons are not.  Pest control birds stay on the job, while pesticides need to be reapplied, and the effect of bird-scaring balloons, hawk silhouettes, and propane cannons quickly wears off.  Birds got to eat.

Thoughts:  When I worked as director at a conference center, we had problems with the swallows, wrens, and pigeons that populated our rural location.  They would roost in the eaves and rafters of the buildings and create an awful mess.  A bigger problem was the swallows pecking through the metal siding to build a nest.  One way to deter the pests was to put an owl statue on the roof.  Initially this worked, but the birds soon realized the owl did not move and they came back.  Interestingly, they never got closer than 20 feet to the fake owl.  Had I known, I could have put up Kestrel nesting boxes.  It is only during the last decades that humans have again learned to use natural predators to control the pests attracted to our artificial environments.  These predators are cheaper, environmentally safer, and far more effective that the pesticides we have grown to rely on.  Even better, they are not passed on to our bodies when we eat.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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