Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Laser may keep birds out of Fairbanks grain plots

By Laura Weingartner

The resonant, musical rattle of the sandhill crane in May signifies spring for many of us. But the birds can pose a problem for farms.

This summer, a green laser beam has been flashing across the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ farm fields to scare off the cranes and other birds.

In May 2024, a laser atop a tower at the Fairbanks Experiment Farm scans the fields using a pre-programmed pattern designed to scare hungry birds away from freshly planted grain. Photo by Kieran Gleason

Cranes have a taste for the grains and seeds that researchers plant in the fields, said Kieran Gleason, manager of UAF’s Fairbanks Experiment Farm. The fields this year have rows of barley, canola, sunflower, oat and wheat, all part of varietal trials, breeding programs and cover crop research.

To deter any birds looking for a snack, Gleason recently installed the laser. Shining from the top of a 25-foot tower, the beam moves on a preprogrammed path around the fields.

Wayne Ackermann, an employee of the Netherlands-based company that makes the lasers, said the birds likely perceive the light as a physical danger and deem the fields uninhabitable.

This new solution is an upgrade to previous bird-deterring strategies.

One such strategy used an air cannon to scare birds off with blasts of noise, a practice that wasn’t favored by the neighbors, according to Jodie Anderson, director of the UAF Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension, which oversees the farm.

At other times, research technicians sat in the fields and chased birds away from the research plots 18 hours a day. They even tried housing a dog team in the fields, but it was too easy for the birds to avoid the dogs, Gleason said.

Sandhill cranes travel thousands of miles to reach their summer breeding grounds, many passing through Fairbanks. Some stay here for the summer, rearing their young and fattening up on small animals, insects, bulbs, berries and seeds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But they aren’t the only birds that can make a meal from a farmer's livelihood. While cranes will eat the freshly planted grain in the spring and the standing grain at harvest, wild geese will eat the grain knocked to the ground in late summer, trampling plants as they go. Geese also like the sprouts. Luckily for farmers in the Interior, by the time crops sprout, geese have already traveled farther north, Gleason said.

Gleason will leave the laser running until all the research crops have sprouted and will reinstall it when the grain is ready for harvest.

The laser is still in its trial period, and farm workers have counted 30 birds in the field since installing it in mid-May. That’s more than researchers would like to see, since even a few birds can decimate the barley nursery, Gleason said.

Keeping birds off the grain means more plants for study. Close monitoring of these plants will help researchers narrow down varieties that do well in Alaska and could be used commercially for oil, feed and food. The work will also provide information on which crops are best for soil health and supply new seed for the breeding program.

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