Feb 28, 2014
Inflatable dancers scare off birds

If there’s one thing that can get under the skin of any farmer, it’s a flock of birds swooping down to damage crops. According to the latest statistics, bird damage is responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in lost income to orchards and vineyards.

Catherine Lindell, associate professor of zoology at Michigan State University, has been working on a USDA-funded study examining how birds damage fruit crops and strategies for discouraging them.

One test she is administering, with the help of farmers in Michigan, involves installing the gigantic, inflatable plastic characters often seen looming over automobile dealerships in farm fields to scare off birds.

These inflatables are called everything from “air rangers” to “scary dancers” to “tube men,” but for the purpose of the study Lindell is calling them “inflatable dancers.”

“These are upward of 15 feet tall, move randomly with arms flailing, come in multiple colors and have noisy fans – all attributes that scare birds away,” Lindell said. “Our partners in the Pacific Northwest were finding success with this, so it looked like something worth looking into.”

Pilot studies were done in Michigan and New York state, as Lindell reached out to Cornell University for help.

Heidi Henrichs, a graduate research assistant at Cornell University in the Department of Natural Resources, has been working on assessing bird damage to orchards across the country.

“Not only are we exploring things that are in use, but possibilities for the future,” she said. “I was approached by Catherine and my background is in bird behavior, so I thought this would be interesting because it’s something that birds aren’t used to and could work well.”

When the study started in the summer of 2012, damage assessments were done on 24 vineyards in New York, and last year Henrichs chose four vineyards to be part of the inflatable dancer experiment.

“We wanted to find ones that weren’t close to each other so the environments would be different, and also a factor that was important was to test a couple that were netted and a couple that were un-netted,” she said. “We are still working on the statistical analysis from this past summer, and the only thing I can say is that I had some observations while in the field and I didn’t see as many birds comparably as in other sights.”

Based on preliminary findings, the Cornell study has decided to go forward with the experiment in 2014 and will add inflatable dancers to more vineyards.

“The reason they will be effective is that they are a novel object. It’s not that they look anything like things threatening to birds, and there’s no physical harm that’s threatening, but the fact that they are randomly moving and they have these shiny colors seems to work,” Henrichs said. “We also paired this with a study that moved the air dancers around the plot, to see if the birds would get used to them. We are still looking at those results.”

Tom Macinski, owner of Standing Stone Vineyards in New York’s Finger Lakes region, was one of the guinea pigs for the test, putting a large inflatable up near his Pinot Noir grapes.

“I have participated in the Cornell program in studying bird damage for the past few years, and this year they approached us about these inflatable ‘scary dancers,’ the same things you see in the car lots,” he said. “From what I understand, they made some slight modifications to them, like making them shine more, and set it up for a month or so in my fields.”

Macinski said that bird damage can be devastating to his land. Once, a group of starlings knocked out 6 to 8 tons of his Gewürztraminer grapes, causing nearly $88,000 in lost potential wine sales. He put up bird netting and tried other things, but found the inflatable dancers work better.

“My impression is that they worked very nicely,” he said. “I thought it was surprisingly effective. We have a lot of bird pressure at this location and it’s not limited to, but it’s mostly, starlings. They flock up on the telephone wires and pick out what grapes they want to eat and just nail them. This seemed to limit that, and I am excited to try this again.”

Steve Otto, owner of Valley View Farms in Bangor, Mich., which grows 70 acres of blueberries, calls the unusual scarecrows “air dancers.” The inflatables were installed in three of his fields that have power, and in a few without power with the help of generators.

“I have to tell you, they worked really well with keeping the birds away,” he said. “It moves are so erratic and are so unpredictable – especially on a medium fan – that the birds just don’t like it. We’d turn these things on and the birds just went away.”

The study lasted just one growing season, but Otto was so impressed with how they worked that he purchased four of his own and currently has them up and running.

“I don’t know what effect they would have in the middle of a 15-acre field, but they are extremely effective on small fields,” he said. “The birds just stay away from that dancing guy. They want nothing to do with him.”

The cost of putting up an inflatable dancer is around $500 – not bad when you consider the money in lost crops you can save. So why isn’t every farmer jumping on this craze? According to Henrichs, there are some challenges, the biggest of which is accessibility and the fact that they need to be operated using 120 volts.

“We were lucky because we found places with outlets and we could use extension cords, but we also needed to purchase small generators that could run in the field on gasoline,” she said. “The best thing is you can use digital timers so the grower doesn’t have to worry about turning them on and off.”

The studies will continue this year, and Lindell thinks there is some definite promise to utilizing them.

“Some growers really think they are very effective, but that’s true with a lot of different techniques,” she said. “We did some comparisons of four blocks with and without dancers, and three of the four showed lower damage in the blocks with dancers. We think it’s worth looking at in a larger manner next year.”

Keith Loria

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