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Fighting The Bird Bandits

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As a child in Germany, my brother and I would roam the vineyards and forests behind our apartment every chance we had.  It was early one fall that I got my introduction to a problem that is still with me today.  We heard a loud ratcheting sound accompanied by a veritable explosion of birds from the vineyard around us.  It was the watchman swinging his clacker over his head to frighten away the birds that had descended in masses on the ripening grapes.  Believe me, it can be a devastating problem.  Later in life as a vineyard owner, I would encounter this same problem but was fortunate to have a less labor-intensive solution by the name of Sarah our beagle who spent her days joyfully romping through the vineyard chasing everything that moved.  I was fortunate, birds can destroy an entire crop in very little time.  Trust me they know when things are ripe.

We have not always been fortunate though in our encounters with birds.  In the Bay Area, my wife and I had a large cherry tree. At first, we looked forward to that cherry pie we knew had to be in our future.  But after a few years of being able to save only a handful of cherries, we were so disillusioned that my wife swore we would never have another cherry tree.

When you start to look for ways to keep our feathered friends away from your fruit and vegetables it is really hard to sift through it.  It ranges from canons to bird food.  Canons for noise, (the neighbors will love that) and the bird food to draw them away by providing a high-calorie healthy alternative.  I am not so sure about that one either.  One source suggests bird baths, as an alternate water source to fruit, I think that the sugar buzz is probably a bigger draw though.

A lot of the agricultural pest control talks about fatal solutions, but you and I should keep well away from those.  First of all, in the foothills where I live a lot of the birds are migratory which equates to a federally protected species.  Dealing with these requires special permits.  Second, a bird feeding station placed away from your fruit or vegetables can provide hours of enjoyment.

So what to do?  My answer is netting for most things.  I did plant a cherry tree and we had a wonderful crop this year, but I dwarf prune my fruit trees so none of them are over 7 feet in height.  That means I can create a structure I can put a net over them and horde my cherry crop for our beloved pies.  They were very tasty and without the tons of sugar in a canned pie filling.

The hoops are placed in the ground using an 18-inch piece of 3/8ths rebar.  At the top, I use a spacer of ¾ PVC with ¾ tees drilled to allow the ½ inch PVC to pass through.  The netting goes over this and is held in place with colored plastic clothes pins.

What about the poor birds that try breaking and entering you might ask?  We have only had one encounter in the three years I have been doing this and we caught the bird, which flew away.  It didn’t look too happy though.  So this year I am switching from the really thin almost invisible single-strand netting to a green poly netting that seems to be multi strand so far between the cherries and the olla berries we have had no bird incidents.

I am not sure how cost-effective this is but we move the structure from tree to tree as the season advances and with enough fruit in the freezer for a half dozen pies I am satisfied.  I am also experimenting with mesh bags for my apples and pears, I will need to report later on that.  Other things like swiss chard and sunflowers, we try to plant enough to share with the finches who won’t leave it alone. If you want to chat with Master Gardeners about topics such as this; the next Open Garden will be Saturday, August 5th at the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden located at 251 South Barretta Street, Sonora from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm.

Jim Bliss is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.

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