Crop protection: Falcons prey on starlings’ fear

BURBANK — It’s an apt name for a predator brought in to scare away pests: Chase.

Diving and soaring over a southeast Washington blueberry patch, the aplomado falcon chases pesky starlings and sparrows to prevent them from feasting on the ripe fruit.

Farmer Jim Lott just smiles as he watches the bird work. Lott is one of 17 farmers nationwide who have signed up for a program, approved late last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that allows the use of predator birds to control pest birds that damage or forage on crops.

Wildlife officials say three farmers have signed up in Texas, where pest birds feast on piles of grain at dairy farms and feedlots and ruin the feed by defecating on it. Seven farmers, including Lott, already have signed on in the Pacific Northwest, where starlings infuriate fruit growers with their gluttonous ways.

“We never expected a whole lot of people to get them, but it did make sense to allow the use of raptors to control problem flocks of birds, agricultural pests, because in many ways, that’s probably more environmentally sound than other methods people might use,” said George Allen, Fish and Wildlife’s branch chief of permits and regulations in Arlington, Va.

“I expect the kinds of uses will expand in the future, but it’s still early in the game,” he said.

Farmers have long battled birds and wildlife that damage or forage on their crops, causing an estimated $944 million in damage in one year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Damages program report in 2007.

In many places, farmers and wildlife managers have gotten creative in handling the problem. Grinning scarecrows wearing grandpa’s old overalls? Not so much anymore.

Pyrotechnics and laser shows have been used to scare away crows from crops or seabirds and pigeons from airports. In North Dakota, where blackbirds cost sunflower growers an estimated $15 million annually, federal wildlife officials filled cages with captured blackbirds to lure their unsuspecting relatives to be trapped or killed.

Not all methods are lethal, but in 2004, the most recent year for which data was available, the Agriculture Department killed more than 2.7 million nuisance animals. The majority were starlings, nonnative birds that destroy crops and contaminate livestock feed and are considered an invasive species.

Starlings have long been a nuisance to Northwest fruit and berry growers, who’ve tried countless ways to get rid of them: reflective ribbon, squawking bird recordings and booming propane cannons, firing at all hours and aggravating neighbors.

Enter the new regulations, which allow indigenous birds, largely protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, to be used for bird abatement in agriculture. In the past, only nonindigenous birds could be used, raising a number of problems.

Nonnative birds weren’t always attracted to the species the farmers hoped to eradicate, and they have a tendency to just fly away, Allen said.

“We don’t want to be introducing a nonnative species,” he said. “If you lose a peregrine or prairie falcon that is native to North America, it’s not as big an issue as losing something that’s not native.”

Lott bought out one of two aplomado falconers in the United States to use the predators at his blueberry farm. They rarely catch the starlings, he said.

That’s where bird abatement differs from falconry, because the predators aren’t intended to catch the birds, just scare them away.

“In my mind, we’re not really pushing any environmental laws or rules. It’s just a natural thing, very natural, to the farm. We’re not shooting guns or anything of the other things that the birds require,” he said.

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