Farming With Wild Birds: Practicing Co-Existence
By Jo Ann Baumgartner
Farming is one of those pursuits that requires creative thinking. So many factors are juggled for a good harvest and a healthy farm, including considerations that support or exclude wild nature. The challenge is balancing the farm’s future sustainability with growing and selling products that do not push the landscape beyond its limits. As Aldo Leopold said, “A good farm must be one where the wild fauna and flora has lost acreage without losing its existence.”
Most farmers are aware of raptors scanning for prey as they soar, hunting from a perch or following in the wake of the tractor to scoop up pest rodents and insects that are disturbed. The curious farmer wonders why Nuttall’s Woodpeckers and other songbirds are present in their walnut and apple orchards (studies show a reduction by birds of 41-97% of codling moth), why Savanah Sparrows and other songbirds are in their alfalfa fields (the birds reduce alfalfa weevils by 33%), and if those aerial insectivores above the farm—the Barn Swallows—are eating crop pest insects (pests can be 18% of their diet). There are tools now that use DNA analyses and statistical models to make more sense of how beneficial some birds can be. Compelling on-farm research done over the years has reported 220 bird species in North America consuming agricultural farm pests, which makes a great case for why farmers should take a second look at those birds flying by, and encourage them to stop and feed on crop pests.
All farmers are aware that birds can be pests themselves in a few crops, such as American Robins in blueberries. But here’s the thing – many so-called pest birds (including Robins) are beneficial during the nesting season when they feed insects to their young. Practicing co-existence by supporting the birds when they are helpful, and by protecting the crop during the fall harvest, can foster the birds’ natural tendency toward keeping insect pests in check.
While birds will fly into the farm without being encouraged at times, such as during large pest outbreaks, making the farm bird-friendly by providing food, cover, water, and nesting sites will up the odds that they are present when needed. Support for birds comes in many forms: artificial nest boxes, perches and platforms; clean water for drinking, bathing and mud-nest building; vegetative structures for perching, such as annual sunflowers and sorghum; and cover such as brush piles. For a more long lasting approach with multiple benefits to the farm and Earth’s biodiversity, native habitat is planted and conserved. Riparian habitat has the highest real estate value for bird diversity on the farm, but hedgerows and other shrubby edge habitat can also support birds as they sally out from cover to eat the farm’s pest insects. Often, the more bereft the farm is of habitat, the more benefits it could receive from birds’ services. The greatest extinction threat to birds is agriculture, which paradoxically means many of those farmlands that have caused the most harm could benefit the most, helping to reverse the trend.
In general, native plants are more effective than nonnative plants at supporting the food web that includes insects that birds eat. According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, “It is a matter of life and death for their offspring if they don’t catch enough insects.” For example, chickadees must catch more than 5000 insects to raise a successful brood. Audubon’s native plant app only requires a zip code be entered to show a list of plants that support the insects and/or fruits, nuts, and seeds birds like to eat.
If you want to learn more about birds in your farm, garden, or nearby open space, do as Jon Young suggests in What the Robin Knows, and pick a “sit spot” that you go to daily, or as often as you can, to sit quietly and listen to the birds. The trick is to blend in, so that after a while the birds figure out you are not a threat and they go about their business. That’s when it will get interesting—hearing pairs of birds talking to each other as they search for insects, the call of a hunting raptor, alarm calls from songbirds when their falcon predators are near, and territorial songs and nestlings begging for food.
Climate change is making it more challenging for farmers and wild birds. Warming weather is bringing new pests to the farm, and intensifying rainstorms are bringing more erosion. Climate chaos is also disrupting the synchronicity of food sources available for birds migrating and raising young. By adding habitat to the farm, birds are brought into closer contact with the insect pests farmers are striving to control, and wind and water erosion is reduced. When bird-friendly practices are implemented over broad areas, suitable habitat will be available where needed. Habitat can also meet the needs of many other farm goals, from supporting natural enemy insects and pollinators to storing carbon above and below ground. The more farmers implement practices with multiple benefits, the more secure, resistant, and resilient their farms and our world will be.
Jo Ann Baumgartner is executive director of Wild Farm Alliance. She is the co-author of Supporting Beneficial Birds and Managing Pest Birds and of Biodiversity Conservation: An Organic Farmer’s and Certifier’s Guide. Jo Ann co-edited, with Dan Imhoff, Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature: Essays in Conservation-Based Agriculture. Before joining WFA in 2001, she worked for other sustainable agricultural nonprofits, was senior researcher for a book of California’s rare wildlife species, and was an organic farmer for over a decade. She has a keen interest in the conservation of native species for their own sake, and the connections between farms and the larger ecosystem.