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Berry Growers Try Alternatives To Bird Scare Cannons

It’s an issue all over the Northwest.  Housing development is moving into farm country. That can make for uneasy neighbors, especially at certain times of year.  This is one of them.

Blueberry growers commonly use booming cannons to scare birds away from the ripening crop.  Up near the Canadian border, some berry farmers are experimenting with alternatives to keep the peace with neighbors but still protect crops from hungry starlings. 

Correspondent Tom Banse reports on a case of cooperation trumping litigation.

Rural homeowner Jeff Littlejohn rigged falcon-shaped kites at a neighboring blueberry farm to displace the bird scare cannons.

Years ago, Jeff Littlejohn bought and renovated an old farmhouse so he could raise his family in the dairy land near Lynden, Washington.  Littlejohn consults for non-profits by day.

Over time, he’s seen the neighboring pasture replanted to raspberries and now blueberries.  In fact, blueberry acreage in the county has doubled recently. The growth is explosive, quite literally.

Jeff Littlejohn: “You have a triple shooter that is shooting from Canada 300-400 feet away…[boom] Then you’ve got a triple shooter or two to the southeast here about a quarter-mile….”

We’re not at war, though it sounds like it.  Littlejohn is describing propane-powered gas cannons. 

Berry growers use the automated noisemakers to ward off scavengers around harvest time.  Cannon fire can be heard from before dawn past dusk.

Jeff Littlejohn: “We’re all sort of suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.  And it really is the truth.  We kind of lament and do not look forward to summer coming because we know this is on the horizon.”

Where this story could’ve gone next is somebody gets a lawyer and runs to the government or courts.  But in this case, grumpy neighbors have held their fire.

Instead, rural homeowners and berry growers agreed to sit down and talk.

Charlie Anderson: “Nobody likes the cannons.  We get a lot of phone calls.  We are really working hard to find other ways to do it because we care about what the people think.”

That’s Charlie Anderson.  He’s a berry farm manager for Sakuma Bros. in Skagit County.

The grower wants to be accommodating.  But he also wants homeowners to understand starlings can inflict staggering losses.

Charlie Anderson: “Oh, see the cloud of birds over there coming into the field? Look at 'em….”

Anderson estimates the birds gobble or knock down more than a million dollars worth of berries just on the farm where he works.  It has 550 acres of chest-high blueberry bushes.

Charlie Anderson: “There’s not much that is more frustrating.”

This year, Anderson and other berry growers in Northwestern Washington are trying a new strategy.  It’s one that’s worked in cherry orchards east of the Cascades. 

Starling food?

The growers allied with a university research team to put up falcon nest boxes.  They want to attract wild kestrels.  The small falcons chase the non-native starlings and other birds away. 

Washington Fish and Wildlife agreed to transplant orphan kestrels to jumpstart the natural deterrence. Trinity Western University biologist Karen Steensma calls raptor enhancement “by far the best” deterrent, but says it could take a long time.

Karen Steensma:  “There is no permanent solution to the starling issue because they are incredibly successful in their reproductive rate and their ability to adapt. However, all of these things that essentially stress starlings and make them move ultimately are going to lower their reproductive rate somewhat.”

This summer Steensma is running a controlled experiment on the effectiveness of different bird deterrents.  She’s placed a propane cannon at one site.  At another field, loudspeakers blare taped bird distress calls.

At a third test plot, a hawk-shaped kite flutters overhead.  Homeowners are jumping in too.

Jeff Littlejohn bought a bunch of those kites for the blueberry field next door. 

All the give and take has had some effect.  Several noise-weary residents say they’re enjoying the quietest summer in years. 

Still, some berry growers remain worried that other homeowners will try to ban propane cannons before there’s an accepted alternative.


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