Would you like to subscribe to our newsletters?

Sign up here for our Newsletter!

How Okanagan orchardists finally got fruit-stealing starlings under control

A typical starling trap in the Okanangan.
A typical starling trap in the Okanangan.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/B.C. Grapegrowers Starling Control Program

A program to reduce and control invasive starlings through trapping in the Okanagan-Similkameen is still going strong after two decades running and has successfully brought starling populations under control. 

The Starling Control Project was launched in 2003 when flocks of thousands of the pesky birds were dining out on fruit orchards and grape vineyards, costing growers millions of dollars in losses every year.

“It changes from year to year but I think in general the population is decreasing where there used to be flocks of thousands and now are in the hundreds," said Tyrion Miskell, executive director for the BC Grape Growers Association that administers the project.

In the past, agriculturists used propane tanks that ran continuously, and bangers and other noise makers to scare away the birds, which often caused friction with residents in surrounding neighbourhoods. Growers put netting on fruit trees which cost them time and money. Since the numbers of birds have been reduced and controlled more, things have been quieter.

“There is far less use of the noisy cannons and you’ll see in many vineyards they only net around the outside now. Because the population is reduced, the birds don’t go into the middle of orchards which means less time and cost for the grower," Miskell said.

The starlings go up and down the valley, north to feed on cattle farms and south to feed on fruits and grapes. Research accumulated over the years show 80% of the birds are born and bred in the area, meaning they are not coming from other places so the program can have more impact on controlling the population.

“We’re in a unique situation where we have this long narrow valley with different types of agriculture that keeps the birds here,” Miskell said. “Our goal is never eradication, starlings are a global invasive pest, it’s about control and limiting damage to the fruit.”

READ MORE: iN PHOTOS: Photographers capturing migratory birds returning to Kamloops, Okanagan

The birds eat the fruit or put peck marks in cherries and apples, making the fruit unsellable. They fly in large flocks so can do a lot of expensive damage to crops, and they're aggressive, taking over nests of native birds.

Professional trappers do routes in various parts of the valley and their job is “a bit labour intensive.” Traps are baited with fruit in the summer and bread in the winter, and bait birds are left in the traps to attract more birds from their flocks.

“We have to do it manually pulling the birds out one by one to make sure other bird species are not collected,” Miskell said. “Our trappers are committed and conscientious to handle the birds humanely doing regular checks so birds aren’t left in the cold or sun for very long. We leave food and water in there and objects for shade and hiding.”

READ MORE: Merritt residents finding unusual pigeons around town

The birds are euthanized using CO2 gas and the corpses donated to people for feeding raptors and owls.

Miskell said there are not a lot of programs like the Starling Control Program in the world and part of the project is to share knowledge with other growers and continue education working with growers and the regional districts.

“I’m always interested in innovation and change and we’ve tried different things over the years, figuring out new metrics for success,” she said. “We like to engage in more science to keep measuring the impacts we’re having. We’re always talking to our growers to identify problems we might be able to address.”

READ MORE: Cherry acreage continues to climb as apples decline in the Okanagan

Starlings were introduced to North America in 1890 when sixty European Starlings were brought to New York by the American Acclimatization Society as part of goal to bring all birds featured in Shakespeare’s play to North America, with 40 more of them brought over the following year. The invasive species was reported in Oliver in 1945 and nests were found in Vernon in 1952.

The birds cause millions of dollars in damage to crops every year in North America, with damage estimates at over four million dollars per year in the Okanagan-Similkameen. The Starling Control Program is funded through three regional districts and financial contributions from grape and fruit growers.

Go here for more information on the Starling Control Program. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Shannon Ainslie or call 250-819-6089 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

We welcome your comments and opinions on our stories but play nice. We won't censor or delete comments unless they contain off-topic statements or links, unnecessary vulgarity, false facts, spam or obviously fake profiles. If you have any concerns about what you see in comments, email the editor in the link above.