It is frustrating to see crows or geese follow along behind a corn planter and pluck seeds from the furrows. It is just as infuriating to watch starlings belly up to the feed trough and eat the grain intended for the herd.
They seem to be everywhere – in fact, they are. Those starlings in the feed bunk are just a handful of the estimated 160 million that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says are around. But no, not all of those 160 million are lurking around your farm.
Still, this is no minor problem. Like most other birds, starlings consume about half of their body weight in grain every day. That’s the equivalent of a typical person eating 300 quarter-pound hamburgers – or 75 pounds of food daily.
It really is not unusual for flocks numbering in the tens of thousands to stay around one part of a county for weeks or even months. The competition for food becomes intense and the starlings will eat whatever is available.
At the same time, they leave their droppings behind in the dairy’s feed bunks and in the cattle waterers.
Fecal contamination of either feed or drinking water is a real disease hazard, especially for calves and pregnant cows, USDA researchers noted.
The U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Services workers also noted that nesting materials and bird carcasses on and in farm equipment can cause damage, getting into dispenser pumps, grinder/mixers and augers. Like other critters, they can get into vehicle engines and wreak havoc.
How about other species?
English sparrows and pigeons also can become a pest around feedlots or dairy operations. Neither is a protected species.
Damage control methods for pigeons and English sparrows run parallel to those for starlings. The first line of defense is to keep a clean feeding area, which should keep the problem from happening.
Shooting pigeons has been a sport for farm kids since forever. Typically, a 12- gauge or air rifle loaded with No. 8 or No. 9 shot is used. Avitrol is registered for use but requires a pesticide applicators license (see main story).
The USDA’s APHIS Wildlife Service can provide species-specific recommendations on control of these and other species.
Know your enemy
Starlings came to us from Europe just over 100 years ago. They arrived on the East Coast but soon spread their range from the East Coast to the West Coast and from northern Mexico up to lower Canada.
Most people will recognize these small flocking birds with a black plumage that has a metallic sheen. Beige spots cover much of the typical starling’s body.
Getting rid of starlings
Winter is the best time to initiate a starling program to address this menace to your farm.
Neither federal nor state laws protect starlings. They are an invasive species and often have a negative impact on other birds, as well as cows.
There is no bag limit on starlings and there are many ways to control them on a farm, with techniques ranging from cleanliness to chemical pesticides.
Start by cleaning up feedlots. Starlings find feedlots where there is plenty of grain. Remove any spilled piles near grain bins, on lanes and around bunkers. Whenever possible, feed any livestock in a covered building or in an area that is less accessible to birds.
If starlings are a problem in your area, consider feed forms that starlings and other birds cannot swallow. Starlings cannot handle feed cubes that are larger than a 1/2-inch square or a 1/2-inch in diameter.
USDA strongly urges producers to avoid use of 3/16-inch pellets. They warn that starlings can consume these pellets six times faster than granular feed.
Producers should keep feed scarce during the early hours into midday, the time when starlings prefer to feed. This is not a blanket recommendation to keep free-choice feed away from the herd after milking; however, it is a technique that will reduce damage if starlings are swarming in an area.
Try not to topdress silage. Instead, mix supplements and grain products with other rations, the USDA recommends.
Another way to outsmart starlings is to reduce water levels in waterers to more than 6 inches below the lip of the water. Cows and calves can still access the waterer. However, starlings will be unable to stand and drink if the water is lower than they can conveniently reach.
Starlings will avoid areas where there is no place to perch. Starlings love to flock in trees around barns. If they show signs of roosting or nesting in your trees, thin the trees to make it more difficult for them to perch.
The big guns
Pyrotechnic guns are not that big. But starlings do not know that. Noisemaking devices shot from a shotgun or pyrotechnic pistol can work at least for a while.
Noisemaking has to start before too many starlings settle into an area and start to do real damage. It is best done early in the day to be effective against starlings.
Note that the neighbors might object. Noisemakers make noise. It sounds like gun shots and might worry some people enough that they will call the police, either because they are bothered by the noise or because they are concerned about the shooting.
Informing the neighborhood about your noisemaking plans well in advance of setting off the noisemakers is good policy. Also be careful if the area where you are using the pyrotechnics is dry because there is a fire hazard.
Most local Fish and Game or Wildlife Service offices will have information on how to use noise to scare off starlings.
Get the word out with recorded distress calls. These are recordings of a starling’s warning or distress call. The recordings are available on computer cards or traditional CDs or cassettes. They should be played only for 10 or 15 seconds at a time.
Just be sure that the recording is of the right species of bird, in this case, English starlings.
A second technique is to have real birds send out the distress calls. This is accomplished by use of materials like Avitrol. It is a bait treated with a chemical toxicant that causes a small percentage of the birds who consume it to die. Birds that ingest Avitrol fly erratically and emit distress calls (just like those on the recordings). The remaining birds buzz off. This is an EPA-restricted-use material for sale only to certified applicators.
Avitrol is also labeled for use against blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds in feedlots.
One step up from Avitrol are the avicide products. These kill all birds that ingest them. Again, a user must be a certified pesticide applicator and must show that they are certified in the proper category.
A big consideration when using a general avicide is whether there are beneficial or protected species in the area.
One avicide often discussed is DRC-1339, a slow-acting material that is rapidly metabolized by birds. Pennsylvania, for example, has three brands of DRC-1339 products registered: Starlicide Complete, DRC-1339 Concentrate Staging Areas and DRC-1339 Concentrate Feedlots. The Starlicide can be used by any certified pest control operator. Starlicide Complete comes in a poultry pellet formulation and is already premixed.
DRC-1339 Concentrate products are for use only by USDA personnel trained in bird control. The farmer will be responsible for pre-baiting and the USDA personnel will come in for actual use of the toxicant and follow-up monitoring.
Pre-baiting involves placing untreated bait out to attract the target birds and train them to come to a certain area to feed at a certain time. It is required with all of these materials. Avitrol, Starlicide Complete and DRC-1339 all require pre-baiting. Pre-baiting should start three days to a week before the actual use of the avicide and should be followed immediately by use of the avicide so the starlings see no difference in pattern.
Add it all up and starlings are a costly menace. They eat food that costs money to produce, buy and blend. They cost time and equipment repairs. They require structural maintenance around calf hutches and barns. Worst of all, their activities depress the milking string’s production because cows get annoyed by the noise made to shoo the birds away. Add in the veterinary bills when livestock comes down with an illness, and starlings are a major hassle.