Bird-control efforts spare Okanagan crops

Close to 500,000 starlings have been grounded as a result of region-wide program that's seeking renewed funding

Close to 500,000 nuisance birds have been permanently grounded through a program launched to help protect the region’s agricultural bounty.

Between 2003 and 2011, the Okanagan Similkameen Starling Control Program trapped and killed 442,197 birds, according to its own statistics, and is on track to hit the half-million mark once the numbers for 2012 are tallied.

Knocking those pests out of the sky has prevented untold crop damage and resulted in fewer complaints about the noise associated with other bird-scare methods like propane cannons, said Greg Norton, who helps oversee the program.

Norton, a director of the Okanagan Kootenay Cherry Growers’ Association, touted those benefits last week during a funding pitch to the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.

The RDOS and two regional districts to the north each provide $25,000 annually to the starling program, which had a $115,000 budget last year and is administered by the B.C. Grapegrowers’ Association. Agricultural producers chipped in about $36,000 for 2012, up from $28,500 in 2008.

“It’s a bit of a tough sell sometimes, but we are continuing the pressure on specific producers. There’s still a couple of big players out there we still want to get at,” Norton said.

Producers are not obliged to contribute, but are asked to donate $10 per planted acre.

Funds help pay four trappers to capture the starlings and dispatch them using carbon dioxide gas, Norton explained, and most of the bird carcasses are then provided to falconers and an owl rehabilitation centre.

Grant money from higher levels of government is also being sought to continue with research to identify from where local starlings originate.

“We really want to zero in on where they come from and it may dramatically change where we go after them,” Norton said.

He added that a graduate student working for the program on an expired, two-year term developed a method to analyze isotopes found in starlings’ feathers and was able to determine about 20 per cent of the starlings in this region come from the Quesnel area.

The program is also hoping to enlist the help of the area’s urban residents to wipe out starling nesting sites at homes and businesses in larger centres by setting up a service people can call to have someone remove nests free of charge.

Summerland Mayor Janice Perrino suggested the program also reminds people that getting rid of starlings, which destroy other species’ eggs and take over their nests, could help more desirable bird species get themselves re-established.

“People don’t realize that our songbirds are gone and… much of that is because of the starling,” she said.

“And I think if the education was, ‘If you get rid of this, you’ll get these back,’ I think that would be a huge educational piece that the public would be pleased to know.”

RDOS directors expressed support for continued funding of the program, which Norton said requires a buy-in from all three regional districts. He said the Central Okanagan Regional District has already pledged its support, while a presentation to the North Okanagan Regional District is scheduled for January.