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Master Gardener: Have Your Birds and Berries Too

I am proud of our bird friendly yard. Nonetheless each year I have second thoughts as raucous jays and brazen robins plot to pillage the berries and peaches. Even though vastly outnumbered by the hungry hordes, we have learned to salvage much of our crop.

The surefire way to protect fruit is to cover it with netting. The recommended method is to tie netting over a small tree, fastening it around the trunk beneath the lowest branches. Use three-quarter inch mesh netting to allow air and light through. Easier said than done though, and it complicates the gardener´s harvesting the crop as well as the bird´s.

Professional orchardists resort to a variety of imaginative techniques to discourage birds such as large area netting, “battery powered wailers,” “propane bangers,” and electrical sound systems broadcasting a variety of noises such as rock music, traffic sounds, etc. Not practical in the backyard orchard or for good neighbor relations. Avoid toxic baits and repellents used in some agricultural situations as they have the potential to damage people and pets. Motion-activated water sprinklers could help and may deter deer as well—at least for a bit.

My father was on to a good and much simpler idea in his small Nebraska orchard. All winter he collected the lids from tin cans; he then punched a hole on one edge of each and strung several together. Hanging in his trees, they glittered and clanked in the breeze, intimidating at least some of the birds. He moved his tin can creations frequently from limb to limb and tree to tree. Old CDs can be used in the same way.

Garden supply centers and catalogs market a number of bird scare gizmos. The glittery tape that goes by the name “bird scare tape,” “flash tape,” or “repeller ribbon” is quite useful. Tie strips in your trees or amongst the berries to flutter and flitter with the slightest breeze.

I am equally fond of my large, inflatable snake. I´ve dubbed him Ferdinand, or Ferdi for short. Ferdi hangs out in whatever tree is currently ripening its bounty, moving daily to a different branch. Occasionally we beg old windsocks, pinwheels and the like from friends for additional orchard duty. I´ve never tried the plastic owls sometimes sold; though I suspect they too can be helpful.

Some people create charming or just plain grotesque scarecrows. Accessories that flap or shine in the breeze help make a scarecrow even scarier. To most effectively baffle the birds you must:

• Put scare items in place just before the fruit ripens and before the birds find the tasty crop.

• Move or change items often so the birds don´t catch on to your tricks. Alter scarecrow accessories and untangle scare tape that has become wrapped around branches, etc.

• Remove these items as soon as the crop is finished and before the birds become used to their presence. Reuse them next year.

It is illegal to catch or kill all birds except starlings and house sparrows—and for good reason. Most song and woodland birds rarely avail themselves of large amounts of our fruit, preferring seeds or insects instead. Birds eat a vast variety of troublesome bugs in our yards, orchards, and wild spaces.

Birds of prey further assist farmers and gardeners. Hawks and kestrels help control rodents, and barn owls are especially noted for a healthy appetite for gophers, ground squirrels, and mice. Many gardeners and farmers find that putting up owl boxes helps attract these nighttime foragers. For information about constructing owl boxes and for other gardening questions, contact the Tuolumne County Master Gardener office at 209-533-5696.

Even though outnumbered, we really are smarter than the birds—and a little sharing is not a bad thing. Now I think I´ll go pick a few of our nice, juicy peaches. See you in the garden.

Vera Strader is a Sonora area Master Gardener. Her yard is certified as a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat.