Encouraging bird populations on farmland could increase yield by more than 10 per cent, according to an Albury researcher.
While it has traditionally been thought birds damage and eat crops, a new study by Charles Sturt University’s Rebecca Peisley shows the benefits outweigh the costs.
“A lot of farmers are really keen to find ways to reduce bird damage on their crops, but I was really interested in the other side of things — that birds can provide for farmers,” Dr Peisley said.
“And I found birds were overwhelmingly positive in the three systems I looked at.”
Dr Peisley observed the impact of birds on apple orchards, vineyards and grazing land during 2015 and 2016.
“I could trade off how much damage was caused compared with how much was prevented, to come up with an overall trade-off value.
“We always need to acknowledge that birds are doing damage, but we’re now finding birds are providing some significant benefits.”
Feathery friends, not foes
Dr Peisley said birds had become accustomed to traditional repellents such as gas guns and balloons, but natural methods were an effective alternative.
Her study showed native and predatory birds such as kookaburras and honeyeaters helped with animal and insect management, removed animal waste, reduced the spread of disease, and discouraged pests such as foxes.
She found in orchards, birds reduced the impact of insects by about 20 per cent while causing only 2 per cent damage.
In vineyards, predatory birds reduced damage by 50 per cent.
But Dr Peisley said it was hard to predict how changes to the environment might influence the ongoing behaviour of birds.
“I did my study during years of good rainfall … of course during other years, birds may do more damage than good, but that’s all part of it.
The study filled a gap in Australian research, because similar studies had only been undertaken in America.
“I’ve really just touched the tip of the iceberg. There has to be birds in every single agricultural system we have in the country,” Dr Peisley said.
“Agriculture is our main land use, so birds really have the potential to be significant providers to our entire agricultural industry.”
Farmers receptive to research
Dr Peisley said farmers had responded well to her findings, presented at industry workshops held by the NSW Department of Primary Industries.
She said sustainable increases in yield had been the best way to illustrate the benefits to farmers who might be wary of birds.
“Many farmers are interested in finding ways to decrease bird damage on their farm, but they’re also really interested in the benefits birds can be providing for them for free,” Dr Peisley said.
She said farmers across the region had already started putting her research to the test, by installing perches in vineyards and maintaining native vegetation to help encourage birdlife.
“They don’t really have to do anything to get these additional benefits. If we can let nature just do its thing, it’s going to work in the farmers’ favour.”