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Star Wars meets fruit farms as lasers deter berry-stealing birds

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Blueberries and blackberries for sale at the Westmoreland Berry Farm stand at the Arlington Farmers' Market in Arlington, Virginia in this picture taken June 28, 2008. -- REUTERS

IN THE HISTORIC BATTLE of birds versus farmers, there’s a new hi-tech scarecrow in town.

Bird Control Group, a Netherlands-based firm, is selling a laser in the US that imitates predators to scare off birds. The Agrilaser Autonomic, as it’s called, is installed near crops and combines colors, filters and lenses to produce a greenish laser beam about 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) in diameter. Birds perceive the back-and-forth motion of the laser as a physical danger, like a predator or an oncoming car, and instinctively take flight to seek safety, Chief Executive Officer Steinar Henskes said.

It took the company about three years to develop “the ultimate laser beam to repel birds,” Henskes said. About 100 US farms have adopted the technology, which has been in use for two seasons. The company expects that number could triple by next year, Henskes said.

As long as humans have domesticated crops, they’ve contended with flying pests eager to indulge in a quick meal. Robins, starlings and blackbirds in particular have been known to wipe out acres of ripe berries. A 2012 survey estimated that birds caused $189 million in damages to blueberry, cherry, wine grape and Honeycrisp apple crops in California, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Washington in the previous season. Farmers already use a variety of tools to deter birds, including nets, cannons, inflatable air dancers, recordings of birds calling out in distress, and repellent.

Still, there’s a need for more innovation in keeping birds away from fruits, said Jim O’Connell, a senior agriculture resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Kingston, New York. The animals are persistent and smart when it comes to getting their food and will often learn the difference between real threats and fake ones.

“Birds continue to adapt, so we need to continually change things around to keep ahead of them,” O’Connell said by telephone. “If you give them any opportunity, they’ll keep coming back.”

Enter the bird laser, which Bird Control Group says is advanced enough so that the animals can’t get used to it or eventually outsmart it.

That would be a relief for farmers like Mike Boylan, the owner of Wrights Farm in Gardiner, New York. A couple years ago, birds consumed his farm’s entire cherry crop of about four acres.

“We couldn’t get in there fast enough to get the birds out,” Boylan said. “It was a light crop, they ate the whole thing.”

Boylan, who also grows blueberries, uses nets to try and protect that fruit. And while effective, if the nets have any slight tears anywhere, the “pesky little buggers” seem to find them, he said.

Amanda Vance, a faculty research assistant at Oregon State University, said some farmers are having success with the laser. She used it last season in blueberry research fields in combination with Bird Gard, which projects distress calls. Used together, the field lost hardly any berries, she said.

The laser is also being used in vineyards and at poultry farms, to help keep wild birds with diseases like avian influenza away. In the Netherlands, it keeps geese off of agricultural land and pastures for dairy cows. It’s also used in other industries like aviation. Bird Control Group estimates there are about 6,000 users of the lasers around the world, and that they reduce bird interference by between 70% and 99%.

But, there is still one surefire, old-school way to keep birds out: hire a professional falconer to fly a trained raptor around the fields at harvest time.

“There is really no scare tactic that rivals a bird of prey,” which “represents death,” said Juliet Carroll, the fruit coordinator for New York State Integrated Pest Management at Cornell University. “You’ve got the fear that is instinctive, and the birds never get over it.”

But it’s expensive to hire a falconer, Henskes of Bid Control Group said, and there aren’t always a lot of professionals available — which is why the company is betting that the bird-of-prey mimicking lasers could be the next best thing. — Bloomberg

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