The role of wild birds on organic farms is complex. On one hand, birds are important predators of pests that can consume enough harmful insects to increase crop yields. Many growers actively seek to enhance these benefits by, for example, planting hedgerows or other non-crop habitats that provide wild birds with food and shelter. Planted natural areas bring additional benefits for beneficial insect conservation (including pollinators), managing farm runoff, and reducing soil erosion. These many benefits do not come without risks, however. Wild birds attracted to non-crop plantings have been implicated as vectors of harmful E. coli and Salmonella strains. In an attempt to manage these risks for human and livestock health, increasingly-strict Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) regulations often encourage growers to try to drive wildlife from their farms through fencing and the removal of natural vegetation. Of course, fencing cannot exclude wild birds. While there is little evidence that these practices actually reduce risks to food safety, the risks to whole-farm health of intentionally degrading biodiversity seem clear.
Our project seeks to rigorously document the ecological role(s) of wild birds on diverse mixed-vegetable farms, providing growers with practical, science-based recommendations for wild-bird management. While the pest-control benefits of wild birds are relatively well-documented for tropical farming systems or particular bird species, surprisingly few studies have rigorously documented the pest-control benefits of species-rich bird communities in mainland-US farming systems. Likewise, reports of wild birds as possible vectors of harmful pathogens & parasites have not been followed by rigorous surveys of birds’ roles as pathogen/parasite vectors across diverse agro-ecosystems, eco-regions, and bird species. To fill these knowledge gaps, and working entirely on the farms of a large group of cooperating growers, we propose to (1) relate wild-bird biodiversity to farm-management practices, through intensive field sampling and GIS modeling; (2) quantify the birds’ benefits for pest-insect control through non-invasive, molecular analysis of prey-DNA remains in bird feces; and (3) assess the birds’ risk of spreading pathogens and parasites that endanger food safety and human/livestock health. Our farm sites range from the relatively cool/wet conditions of the Pacific Northwest to the relatively hot/dry conditions of southern California, and vary in their degree of livestock integration. Therefore, our project will span a broad range of farming contexts likely to impact wild-bird biodiversity and the relative balance of birds’ beneficial and harmful impacts
A vigorous and innovative outreach program is the cornerstone of the A-BIRDS project. We have partnered with the Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, both of which have active “citizen science” bird-conservation programs targeted primarily to homeowners. Our project will work to adapt their easy-to-use, powerful, electronic bird-management tools to the needs and requirements of organic farmers. The YardMap (http://yardmap.org/) and Merlin mobile-bird-ID (http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/ ) electronic tools will be upgraded to allow farmers to quickly and easily receive farm-specific recommendations for wild bird management. Additional outreach programs will include video documentation of “farm walk” field days, used in turn to develop video online resources and project-specific webinars delivered over eOrganic. Our overall, long-term objective is to provide growers with the information and tools they need to manage wild birds on their farms to capture as many benefits, and negate as many harms, as possible. In turn, our project will provide valuable data to inform the development of GAP regulations to ensure that they maximize food-safety protection while minimizing ecological damage.