Shakespeare's North American Tragedy
Shakespeare wrote about many birds in his prose, but only one line was dedicated to the humble starling. Today, that line is responsible for a devastating overpopulation of starlings, a crisis among blueberry growers, and an international pilot project spearheaded by TWU researchers.
In 1890, a gentleman named Eugene Scheifflin thought it would be romantic to release all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings into New York’s Central Park. While bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks didn’t flourish in the Big Apple, the starlings, which Eugene imported from England, did — reproducing at an incredible rate.
It is now estimated that there are over two billion of these invasive birds in the New World. Black and speckled, with bright yellow beaks, starlings fly in flocks of hundreds — sometimes thousands — feeding on insects and berries, especially blueberries, and they’ve found paradise in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley — the second largest producer of highbush blueberries in the world.
With approximately 12,000 acres of blueberries in B.C. alone, and 2,500 acres in Washington’s Whatcom County, farmers on both sides of the border are engaged in a fierce battle with an enemy one twentieth their size — the starling.
Karen Steensma, co-director of the Environmental Studies program and sessional assistant professor of biology at TWU, is also a dairy farmer. She learned first hand how devastating invasive species can be to farms. “When a blueberry grower bought land adjacent to our dairy it occurred to me that bird problems experienced by both the dairy and the blueberry field were a result of extreme imbalance,” she says. “Native species, including birds of prey, were not being promoted, and a non-native invasive species (starlings) was exploiting the niche of the berry-dairy interface by feeding on stored dairy forages in late fall, winter, and spring, and blueberries in summer and early fall.”
Starlings love the blueberry’s high fructose content. Their vast numbers can easily decimate up to 30 per cent of a crop, consuming 15 per cent and fouling the remainder. Growers have tried a variety of methods to keep the Shakespearian pest away: hanging anti-bird nets over the fields, shooting cannons to scare them, playing starling distress calls over loudspeakers, using bird scare balloons, traps, hawk kites, and even the old fashioned shotgun.
These solutions have had limited results. Starlings are exceptionally intelligent, catching on quickly to artificial deterrents. With safety in numbers and few natural predators, farms have precious few natural allies in the fight to save their crops.
There is, however, a fierce little bird that starlings dread — the kestrel. These robin-sized falcons can kill starlings in mid-air, and with flight speeds up to 96 kilometres per hour, the kestrel dominates its environment. Studies have shown that when this little hawk is in the area, starling populations decline.
The kestrel population will need some help if it is to successully help hunt starlings, however. Urbanization, industrial-scale farming, and pesticide use have diminished native kestrel nesting habitats and food sources. There are few kestrels who call the region home.
“My own role in agriculture has long been to seek a type of farming that could be described as ecosystem-based agriculture,” says Steensma, “making the farm and the landscape work together in a harmonious way. So wildlife-friendly farming is something we’ve actively practiced and promoted.”
With this in mind, Steensma has been spearheading research spanning the berry industry in both British Columbia and Washington State.
One of her projects, the Kestrel Nest Project, has her team of researchers working with local berry farmers in the United States, where 50 nest boxes have been built hoping to attract kestrels back to their natural habitat. With grant money from the B.C. Blueberry Council and the non-profit Whatcom Farm Friends, researchers are monitoring and maintaining these boxes over the course of the kestrel nesting season. TWU has also received a scientific research permit from Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, to transport orphaned kestrels found in other parts of the state to Whatcom County, and re-introduce them to the wild.
Blond, sunburnt and wearing binoculars around her neck, 22 year-old environmental studies major Katherine Hartline makes her way through a dairy pasture and out to a small wooden box in the middle of the farm. Hartline has been doing thesis work under Steensma, monitoring and tracking the kestrel’s flight after it is released.
Earlier in the summer she had the privilege of monitoring the first kestrel bird the study received — an orphaned female who hadn’t even taken her fledgling flight. On her initial take off, the young falcon landed just a few meters away. Hartline monitored it for 48 hours, making sure it didn’t succumb to predators and put out dead starlings to ensure it could find enough food. A few days later the kestrel began taking longer flights and was spotted a few roads over. It is hoped that the young female finds a mate and settles in the berry producing area for good.
Today Hartline is releasing her second bird, a male named “Wesley” surrendered by an owner who intended to train it in falconry. Squawking through the pre-flight box plexiglass, Wesley is plumed in stunning grey and brown. With the wide open field ahead and a minimum wind, Hartline gently opens the box. Wesley immediately takes flight, soaring high into the sky. Although two crows pester him at first, he continues circling heavenward.
Asked if she feels like a proud parent, the bird watcher says, “A little.” She recalls what it was like to release the first kestrel. “On her first flight she was really wobbly. The next couple of days, when she really got confident, were cool! I see what a parent experiences when they watch a child, and they’re nervous for him, but they can’t do it for him.”
Hartline knows she can’t be emotionally involved with this bird. After all, it’s a wild animal, something she and Steensma are constantly educating berry farmers about.
“It’s illegal to buy or sell kestrels,” says Steensma. “They are wild animals. We’ve had a lot of blueberry growers ask, ‘where can I buy one? Here’s my money’.”
“By law,” Steensma explains, “the only thing you can do is employ a falconer for the services of patrolling your field. But those falcons must be non-native exotic birds that have been imported, usually from the Middle East, under special licenses for falconry.”
Although an expensive alternative, some desperate berry farmers are turning to companies like Avian Tactical Predators, whose website reads, “STARLINGS IN YOUR BLUEBERRIES? Call now for all natural pest control.”
Only time will tell if the kestrel pilot project and its work to return these beautiful raptors to their natural habitat will help eliminate the overpopulation of starlings.
Steensma has high hopes for the project and her students. “Any program that gives students hands-on experience in designing a project, conducting the research, analyzing the results, and writing up a final report is valuable,” she says. “It gets them into the real world, and allows them a taste of graduate-level research. More importantly, in this case, the research shows a positive role for Christians in promoting community while enhancing biodiversity and helping the bottom line for agriculture. I love this work because it proves one of my favourite lecture recommendations, which is to conserve biodiversity not just for its own sake, but because we (humans) need it!”
Her internship almost done for the summer, Hartline stands in the hot sun and peers into the sky as Wesley becomes a faint speck on the horizon. After graduating next year, Hartline hopes to attend grad school. Her dream job? To be an agricultural consultant in India.
Asked how she feels about starlings, Hartline says, “I don’t have a particular feeling toward them, but in this scenario they are serious pests. It’s important to remember that they have intrinsic and utilitarian value as creatures and as parts of certain ecosystems, and that human error created this problem, not the starlings themselves.”
Ironically, the starling has been placed on the Red List of endangered species in its native United Kingdom.
by Erin Mussolum ('95)
illustration by Zack Rock ('04)
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East of Abbotsford, B.C.
Steensma and her researchers are also involved in the “Starling Behaviour Project.” With a $20,000 grant to TWU from the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and the Fraser Valley Regional District, starlings are being counted and researchers are experimenting with different artificial deterrents. The project is recommending better methods of using these deterrents.
Partners and sponsors in the two research projects are Maberry Packing, Curt Maberry Farms, Enfield Farms, Sakuma Brothers, Rader Farms, Mike VanWingerden, Steensma Dairy, Jeff Littlejohn, Whatcom Farm Friends, B.C. Blueberry Council, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Fraser Valley Regional District, Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, A Rocha, Trinity Western University, and Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
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