A bird in hand might be worth more than fruit growers thought

Pictures by Noni Hyett (left) and Emma D'Agnostino (right)
Pictures by Noni Hyett (left) and Emma D'Agnostino (right)

Once, perched on a wall at a winery near Bendigo, there was a poster of a bird with the text “Balgownie’s most wanted”.

The poster is long gone but the sentiment remains. Like many vineyards across Australia, Balgownie Estate Wines wants to stop grape-eating birds decimating harvests.

Yet new Charles Sturt University research shows farmers could benefit from some eagle-eyed allies in the skies.

CSU ecologist Rebecca Peisley said the benefits of birds for farmers far outweighed costs, particularly to grape growing, apple orchards and extensive livestock grazing.

“When they forage for food, some birds provide positive services by controlling pest insects or removing wastes, while others can be negative by damaging crops,” she said.

At Balgownie netting was currently being used to protect ripening Chardonay grapes.

The winery’s cellar door manager Kathryn Honey said some species could be “pretty ferocious”. This year lorikeets had proven the most menacing to crops, though in previous years it had been wattlebirds.

Picture: EMMA D'AGNOSTINO

Picture: EMMA D'AGNOSTINO

She said wineries were known to use a range of techniques including gas guns, which made loud booming noises to scare birds away. Balgownie was too close to residential areas for gas guns to be appropriate.

Wineries like Bridgewater on Loddon’s Water Wheel Vinyards simply left their crops exposed. Owner Peter Cumming said because of its huge acreage produce loss did not impact the bottom line in the same way it did at smaller wineries.

One of Dr Peisley’s findings was that providing artificial perches for predatory and territorially aggressive birds like Australian magpies scared grape-eating birds and reduced average bunch damage by five per cent.

Picture: NONI HYETT

Picture: NONI HYETT

Other findings included that orchard yields increased by 11 per cent when insectivorous birds were provided suitable habitat next door.

Native raptors were found to reduce the amount of dead rabbit carcases on pastoral land by up to 100 per cent, limiting the spread of disease and preventing the arrival of foxes.

Dr Peisley said the landscape around agricultural land influenced the type of activity of birds within farms, and damage to crops was reduced on sites close to native vegetation.

The research on “sustainable agriculture” filled a gap. Most research into bird damage had taken place in America, with very little done in Australia.

“This research is just the beginning for developing sustainable agriculture. Birds are among many fauna that use farmland and contribute to ecosystem function, and each species need to be considered,” Dr Peisley said.