Okanagan program to target ‘rats of the sky’ where they roost

Research shows destructive starlings prefer the roosting appeal of dairy farms in the North Okanagan

In the 15 years since the Starling Control program was hatched in the Okanagan, Penticton area farmer Rod King has gone from employing a full-time person to shoot thousands of birds at his vineyard to occasionally watching a flock fly overhead.

“I call starlings flying rats and as far as I’m concerned the only good starling is a dead starling,” said King, a member of the B.C. Grapegrowers’ Association, which oversees the Starling Control program in the Okanagan and Similkameen.

Since the program’s inception, just over 800,000 birds have been trapped and euthanized with 2017s trap/kill rate topping 54,000. And that number is expected to soar in 2018, as the program utilizes new technology aimed at catching the birds where they roost.

RELATED: Bird-control efforts spare Okanagan crops

Tyrion Miskell, program administrator of the Starling Control program, explained at a recent Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen meeting, research undertaken at UBC Okanagan proved 80 per cent of the starling population in this area is born and bred in the Okanagan. Meaning the birds are not migrating to the area each year, making trapping effective in decreasing Okanagan-Similkameen populations.

Researchers used the thigh bones of a selection of birds caught in traps to examine the types of minerals in each specimen. Geographic mapping tools were then used to isolate and pin point where those minerals would be found.

“Most of them come from the North Okanagan Shuswap and we believe there’s strength in the argument it’s because of the dairy and farming. There’s a huge concentration of dairy farms up there, so they have food all year round and they also have barns they can roost and nest in up there,” Miskell said. “And then they migrate up and down the valley so we’re finding those birds in the south end of the valley and the central part of the valley as well as the Similkameen as different fruits ripen.”

Moving forward the Starling Program plans to target the North Okanagan birds to reduce numbers even farther.

A research grant was received for a pilot program to build and use a funnel trap. The idea came from a farmer in Abbotsford who used a similar type trap to catch birds in his barn.

“We’re going to focus on those barns in the North Okanagan and try and get entire flocks at a time rather than birds flying by in their migration patterns. We’re going to try and get them where they’re roosting,” she said.

It’s anticipated 1,500 to 2,000 birds will be caught in the traps each time and be euthanized. The cost per catch is expected to increase because each trap will need to be retrofitted for the specifics of the barn, but cost per bird is expected to decrease significantly.

The pilot program will run in conjunction with the traditional way of trapping the birds, which uses a six-foot tall by eight-feet wide portable ‘M’ trap, named after the shape of the opening at the top.

“(The) space in the middle of there is where the birds get in but they can’t actually get out because they can’t actually get the wing span to give them elevation,” she said.

Inside the trap is water, food and a structure to provide cover from the elements including rain and wind. A trapper comes to check the traps every few days. Any other species of bird is removed from the trapped and set free.

“(They are) euthanized very quickly. I actually find it quite humane … They are gassed. Within about six seconds they are gone,” she said.

RELATED:Starlings known as ‘rats of the sky’

The program is not designed to kill all the starlings, which are an invasive species, non-native to the Okanagan, but rather control population.

“In my experience in general in terms of wildlife, insects … as soon as you create a vacancy something is going to move back in,” King said when asked if the idea behind the new technology was to eradicate the birds.

Miskell said if the program was ever discontinued numbers would rise quickly.

“They are prolific breeders and extremely resilient birds, but they also like to live here for the same reasons we like to live here, great urban areas where they can roost with lots of protection and endless food sources right next door to their homes… We also have quite a mild winter so they live through the winter,” she said.

It’s estimated that starlings, even with the program, devour about $4 million in fruit in the Okanagan and Similkameen each year and have a fond appetite for grapes and cherries.

The RDOS, Central Okanagan Regional District and North Okanagan Regional District contribute $75,000 combined to the program each year. Other contributors include North Okanagan Dairy Association, $2,500; B.C. Cherry Association, $5,000; B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, $5,000; B.C. Tree Fruits Cooperative, $5,000 and B.C. Grapegrowers’ Association $38,000.

Starlings were first introduced to North America in the 1890s in Central Park in New York City. Ten birds were released in the park and now the population of starlings in just North America is estimated at more than 450 million.

 

A photo of a ‘M’ trap used in a Lower Mainland community. Photo: City of Abbotsford report

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