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Kill blackbirds to protect sunflower crops?

Blackbirds feast not only in sunflower fields but in feedlots like this one. North Dakota lawmakers could pass a law to allow poisoning of the birds in order to protect the state's biggest crop.
Blackbirds feast not only in sunflower fields but in feedlots like this one. North Dakota lawmakers could pass a law to allow poisoning of the birds in order to protect the state's biggest crop.USDA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Demand for healthier sunflower oil for potato chip frying is spurring a debate about whether millions of blackbirds should die to make it easier to raise the crop.

Demand is rising for NuSun, a sunflower variety that produces oil with less saturated fat and no trans fat, said John Sandbakken, international marketing director for the National Sunflower Association. Saturated and trans fats help clog arteries and increase the risk of heart disease.

One reason for NuSun's increased popularity is the decision by the Frito-Lay snack food company to use NuSun oil to cook its major brands of potato chips, Sandbakken said. The company announced the switch in May 2006, and sunflower plantings need to rise by 600,000 acres next year to meet the new demand, he said.

But a roadblock to increased sunflower production is blackbirds, which feast on the oilseed crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the birds cause about $10 million in damage each year to sunflowers in North Dakota, which produces about half of the nation's sunflower output. Last year's North Dakota sunflower crop was valued at $158 million.

The North Dakota Legislature is considering a bill to spend $79,500 to help in a federal effort to control blackbirds and starlings. One of the methods would involve baiting and killing the birds.

Looking for 'silver bullets'
"We're looking for any and all possible silver bullets out there to deal with this problem," Sandbakken said.

State Sen. Terry Wanzek, a Jamestown Republican, said he once grew sunflowers, but hasn't done so in a decade because blackbirds can eat away a farmer's profit.

"We've surrendered," he said. "The birds won."

The money would pay for part-time workers, hired by the North Dakota Agriculture Department, who would help the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency with bird control.

The project would include common methods, including noise cannons that scare the blackbirds, as well as a new one — poisoning blackbirds with bait along gravel roads. The birds land on gravel roads to get the grit their gizzards need to help digest food.

Supporters of using poisoned bait say other control methods only move blackbirds from one field to another, while opponents say the poison will kill more than just blackbirds.

Research in Louisiana and Texas of a similar blackbird baiting method in rice fields found that mourning doves and meadowlarks were most affected of all non-targeted birds. Both birds are prevalent in North Dakota, and the western meadowlark is the state bird.

"The chemical will interact with mourning doves and meadowlarks in Texas identically to a meadowlark and mourning dove in North Dakota," said Kevin Johnson, an environmental contaminant specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency, which has opposed blackbird baiting programs in the past, does not take positions on state legislation, spokesman Ken Torkelson said.

Audubon against
The National Audubon Society is opposing the bill, said state director Genevieve Thompson.

"It just seems like a more integrated approach that does use nonlethal methods does make more sense," she said.

George Linz, a research wildlife biologist at USDA's National Wildlife Research Center in Bismarck, said blackbird control involves methods which include noise cannons; removing cattails, which provide habitat for blackbirds; and seeding small "decoy" sunflower plots to draw birds away from larger fields.

However, the tactics often cannot handle the onslaught of about 70 million blackbirds that come through the Northern Plains each year, Linz said.

Poisoning migratory birds is illegal, but Fish and Wildlife allows the killing of blackbirds without an agency permit if the birds are damaging or are about to damage crops, Johnson said.

The blackbird baiting program would include monitoring of other bird species. Linz said the bait would be put in trays, using woven wire to screen out pheasants, doves and other birds.