Corn growers again relying on sound in battle against birds

08/23/2012 2:00 PM |

Birds have been having a field day on the cornfields of the East End this summer, and many farmers are resorting to bird cannons to try to keep them away. The cannons’ loud noise makes them unpopular with neighboring residents, but farmers say they have no choice but to use them if they want to save their crops.

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s agricultural program director Dale Moyer said this week that “a lot of fields are being devastated” by birds.

“I have no idea why it’s worse than usual,” he added. “It may have something to do with the way birds are migrating this year. Over the last few weeks, the juveniles started to flock together. It’s something we’re trying to figure out.”

Mr. Moyer said some growers, from Manorville to Orient and on the South Fork, have seen more than 75 percent of their corn eaten by birds in the past several weeks.

Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela said this week that the use of bird cannons is “a short-term issue for the next few weeks, and then it goes back to normal.”

The non-lethal bird cannons don’t fire projectiles but instead make loud popping sounds designed to scare birds away.

Mr. Gergela said farmers are within their rights to use the cannons, as long as they’re not left on at night. He said they are a better choice for pest management than killing birds, as is often done in New Jersey.

“The birds attack the corn by opening up the end of the ear where the silk is. Then the farmers can’t sell it,” said Mr. Gergela.

His advice to nearby residents is “just be patient. You’re in farm country.”

The local corn season usually begins in early July and ends in late September.

Although some grape growers are also having bird troubles, almost all put netting over their crops when they are about to ripen, Mr. Moyer said.

“It’s impossible to net a corn field,” he added. “It would be nice if you could, but it’s impractical.”

Mr. Moyer said bird cannons have limited usefulness and need to be moved to new spots on the fields.

“The birds do seem to get used to it,” he said. “You can change the intervals [of when the cannon fires]. That helps but it’s not perfect.”

Cutchogue farmer Tom Wickham agreed that bird cannons are of limited value.

“Bird cannons work very well the first two days they’re in use. Then the animals get used to them,” he said. He added that firing a shotgun into the air also has limited usefulness and can only be done at least 500 feet from a farmer’s property line.

Mr. Wickham, whose family farm is known for its fruit but also grows some vegetables, said that in addition to birds, deer have also been trampling and eating his crops this year.

“I’m willing to give 10 percent of my crop to the birds. The problem is to keep it down to that level,” he said.

Mr. Moyer said one of the most effective methods of keeping birds out of cornfields is to have a person walk or drive through the fields daily.

“Somebody’s got to spend a lot of time out there,” he said. “You can use balloons, scarecrows or recorded distress calls, but you need the right distress call for the right birds. There are all different species, so that’s usually not the solution either. Again, they seem to adapt to those noises. If we had a solution, that would be very nice.”

Last year, a controversy erupted on The Suffolk Times’ editorial pages over whether the use of bird cannons is necessary.

One letter-writer said use of the cannons “is ruining the peace and quiet that all residents have a right to. Yes, I’m aware of the Right to Farm Act, but that should more accurately be described as the ‘We’ll Do Whatever We Please And To Hell With Everyone Else Act.’ ”

“How a farmer can lack common courtesy and decency and use these atrocious devises is beyond me,” another letter-writer said. “I’m sure most farmers realize that tourism has become a major part of the North Fork and creating what sounds like a bomb-testing ground is not a wise way to keep the tourist dollars flowing.”

In an “equal time” submission, the member of one local farming family wrote, “Cannons are the very last line of defense in a desperate effort to scare birds away long enough to harvest the corn and protect the following week’s supply. Farmers are lucky if they are able to harvest one half of the corn sowed, cultivated, watered, fertilized, sprayed, patrolled and, a total of 72 days from seed, harvested.”

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said his department receives bird cannon complaints periodically. But use of the cannons is protected by the town’s Right to Farm code, and the devices are exempt from Southold’s noise ordinance.

Still, he can understand the neighbors’ objections.

“People move out from points west, move next to a beautiful farm with beautiful views but it is a working farm,” the chief said. “The majority of farmers are good neighbors and for the most part work with their neighbors to mitigate the noise as much as possible. But the cannons are there for a reason.”

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