Luring falcons to farms can keep pesky insects, rodents and other critters in check—putting a dent in poison and pesticide use
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 $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 scientists reviewed past research and concluded, 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," said Catherine Lindell, a 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."