TWU Researchers plot bird against bird to help blueberry farmers.

It is hoped that kestrels like this one pictured here will increase in population and in doing so decrease the starling population.

Hidden among 57 acres of agricultural land owned by Trinity Western University are two small brown non-descript bird boxes. While they don't look like much from the outside, these boxes could one day be home to some acrobatic predators, providing a natural solution to a pesky problem faced by local berry farmers.

Starlings, an invasive species of bird not native to North America, are decimating blueberry crops. Black and speckled, with bright yellow beaks, starlings fly in flocks of hundreds-sometimes thousands-feeding on insects and berries, and they have found paradise in British Columbia's Fraser Valley - the second largest producer of highbush blueberries in the world. Farmers have resorted to a whole host of tactics as they try to battle a host of winged-warriors one-twentieth their size.

But the results of a pilot project by TWU Assistant Professor of Biology, Karen Steensma and her researchers just might provide the most natural solution of all. A study conducted last summer south of the border in Whatcom County showed that when a small, KarenSteensmaterritorial falcon known as the American kestrel is in the area, the starling population may decrease. Starlings fear all birds of prey, and studies in other parts of North America have shown that kestrels will chase and frighten starlings.

Last year, Steensma received funding to distribute kestrel nest boxes in areas where there were dairy and berry farms, hoping to attract kestrels back to the habitat. The project also received permits to release orphaned kestrels with the hope that the birds would stay and make a home in the area.

Starlings typically feed on dairy farms throughout the year and then binge on blueberries during the summer season. Areas that have both dairy and berry farms usually attract starlings in great numbers, wreaking havoc for farmers.

This summer, Steensma will be embarking on a similar study in Langley. To date the professor has received three year's worth of funding from the BC Blueberry Council and is awaiting approval from the Agriculture Environment and Wildlife Fund, and the Washington State Falconers Association. These funds will be used for kestrel research and monitoring of nest boxes near berry farms and other potential kestrel habitats. Unlike the US study, Steensma and her researchers will only be monitoring and providing education during this pilot year, but will not release orphan kestrels as yet..

"The goal of this project is to attract kestrels and repopulate where an existing kestrel population has declined. We hope to build up the population, and learn about land use patterns supportingkestrelss. It's essentially a wildlife conservation project with side benefits to agriculture," says Steensma.

Kim Heuring, a thesis student studying under Steensma, will be literally working in the field this summer. Her tasks will include monitoring the boxes, meeting with land owners to explain best practices for setting up the boxes, such as proper box placement, and studying the dynamics of birds on farms. She will also monitor kestrel sites locally and as far away as Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

When asked what her hope is with this project Steensma says, "Hopefully there will be some direct benefits to blueberry growers. Any bird of prey that is hanging around and making a living in an agricultural area is a good indication that things are getting back in balance."

More information about the US study can be found at www.twu.ca/sites/magazine/no-15/features/feature02.html

Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 41undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 17 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.

 

Last Updated: 2009-05-04
Author: Erin Mussolum