Natural pest control is a cornerstone of organic agriculture. Wild insect-eating birds are important contributors, and many growers seek to enhance these benefits by maintaining hedgerows or other bird habitats. On the other hand, birds sometimes damage produce or act as key vectors of bacteria (e.g., E. coli, salmonella), viruses (e.g., West Nile) and parasites (e.g., fowl mites) harmful to humans or livestock. Unfortunately, there have been surprisingly few holistic studies of wild birds’ ecological roles, both good and bad, on North American organic farms. This leaves growers unable to predictably weigh the benefits and risks of encouraging or discouraging wild bird populations.

Working on highly-diverse mixed vegetable farms, a subset of which also integrate livestock into their farming systems, our Avian Biodiversity: Impacts, Risks And Descriptive Survey (A-BIRDS) project will: (1) Relate biodiversity of wild birds to farm-management practices, through intensive field sampling and GIS modeling; (2) Quantify the birds’ impact on pest insects 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. Collaborators at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy will contribute to innovative electronic outreach products in support of each of these research objectives. Our ultimate goal is to provide growers with practical tools to maximize the benefits of wild birds, while minimizing any dangers, as part of whole-farm planning.

This work is supported by a $2 million grant from the USDA-NIFA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiation (OREI) Program. WSU did a nice press release about our project.

Key collaborators are disease ecologists Jeb Owen and Tom Besser at WSU; landscape ecologist Christina Kennedy at the Nature Conservancy; molecular ecologist Erin Wilson Rankin at UC Riverside; and Miyoku Chu and Janis Dickinson of the citizen science & outreach team at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

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