Bird LifeInsectsWorking Animals

Making Pests a Pleasure

Australian Honeyeater

It’s an age-old struggle: ever since people gave up the hunter/gatherer lifestyle for a more settled agricultural age, food production has been subject to the ravages of creatures with appetites similar to our own. The ‘taming’ of our natural environment has come at a huge price, the only subject of debate is what our excesses will cost our children. Home food producers, not to mention an ever increasing contingent of commercial producers, are looking for new solutions to old dilemmas. Where the aim was to protect ourselves from the elements, we now seek to protect nature and ourselves from the many stresses of a ‘tamed’ wilderness.

Total Exclusion vs Diversion Strategy

Wildlife of any kind can be thought of as being similar to flowing water. Water will always take the route of least resistance. Wild creatures seek only to meet their survival needs by expending the least energy possible.

Control methods that seek to totally exclude are rarely successful and have several disadvantages. For starters, you lose the benefits the wildlife bring, whether aesthetic or practical, at the same time using tremendous amounts of resources and energy.

A case in point is the story of an African village that built a three metre high electric fence to keep the local elephants out of its gardens. The first animal took a couple of shocks in the trunk before retreating to the forest, it appeared that the villagers had won. In moments the animal returned carrying a tree, and without preamble, flattened the fence with it.

Being kind to wildlife is not humanly possible unless you can put food on your own table first. Employing diversionary strategies means exactly that, diverting ‘water’ rather than trying to ‘dam it’. The creatures are included in your overall plan from the outset as opposed to ignoring their presence and becoming (understandably) distraught when they show up for dinner.

Insectivorous bat – a very hard worker

The benefits to this shift in our basic outlook are many, not only reducing the impact of animals on our crops, but even attracting and employing some species to advantage. An excellent example is that of insectivorous bats which can eat as many as 600 flying insects per hour! An organic farmer in Oregon, USA, reported to Bat Conservation International that approximately 600 bats housed in 21 bat boxes had virtually ended the incidence of corn ear worms.

Know Thy Adversary

Like any garden project, forward planning is essential, and an inclusive strategy means that acknowledging wildlife as part of the local conditions, like acid soil or storms, means you’ll be ready for anything.

For example, if I was about to plant an apple orchard, I should ask myself a few simple questions like: Who besides me likes to eat apples? Where I live in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, the answer would be possums, codlin moth and parrots. Addressing each creature separately, I would endeavour to know my adversary.

Take possums. Possums climb very well and can jump reasonably well too but no more than four feet (1.2 metres). So I’ll need to prune my trees so they have four feet of trunk before the first branches. Now I can wrap the trunk in sheet tin so the possums can’t climb it.

Tree branches will need to be kept at least four feet away from fences and the like so there are no alternative routes for the possums. I’ll plant a couple of trees away from the main orchard and leave them unprotected as a decoy feeder.

I’m no entomologist, so off to the library to look up codlin moth. I discover that the larvae are the culprits, and that there is little I can do once they’re in the apple, so it’s the parents I’m after. Armed with the knowledge that they fly at night, I call in the airforce, BATS! Insectivorous bats that is, not fruit bats. The metal collars around the trees are well known to house bats but I’ll install a few bat boxes as well.

Now for the parrots. Many orchardists will tell you that most bird scarers, like tinfoil plates, gas guns, windchimes and tin hawks, work for a short while but the birds soon become accustomed to them. The critical point is that birds as a rule don’t have very long memories and constant change is the secret. So, a weekly rotation of four different scarers is better than one scarer alone.

During your crop’s most vulnerable period, you might consider feeding the parrots in a tranquil place away from your orchard (and scarers). If this option is taken up, some research would be required to determine which species is giving you the headache and what you can entice it with. Not all parrots, for instance, eat seed. The lorikeet is a ‘brushed tongue parrot’ and feeds primarily on pollen and nectar, so juicy fruits like cherries and plums are a favourite target. A suitable nectar substitute should be available from good pet stores. You might wish to find out what your birds used to feed on at ripening time before your orchard came along. It could be their alternatives are limited as a result of our agriculture.

South Australia has a huge number of vineyards, but little bush left in the area where grapes are produced. As a result the local honeyeaters often have a devastating impact on the crops. Some of the more progressive vineyard owners have begun planting native banksias in groves around their vineyards, selecting species that open their nectar-rich flowers at ripening time. When the banksias flower, the honeyeaters display an obvious preference for them and the vineyards suffer only the lightest bird damage at the edges.

Acceptable Losses

I know of no pest control strategies that completely eradicate damage to crops without eradicating the troublesome species, and this usually starts more problems than it solves. It is often easier to see what the wildlife is doing to us without pausing to think what they are doing for us. For instance, honeyeaters may attack fruit but they also consume vast amounts of insects. If we were to eradicate the honeyeaters, the massive increase in insects would force many growers to rely on poisons to do what the honeyeaters did without toxins for free. If I wished to harvest the fruit of 10 trees per year I would consider planting 12, the extra being payment for natural insect control.

Nothing in the natural world happens instantly, and most of the suggestions above require mid to long term thinking. When we examine the effects of short term thinking, so evident all around us, that doesn’t seem so bad.

It’s impossible to provide universally effective solutions to wildlife management dilemmas. My aim here is to encourage people to take inclusive strategies on board. With a little research (your local library is a gold mine – your neighbour might be as well) and observation, your will find even more ways to work in harmony with nature, and by example you will no doubt show others in your area how to do the same.

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  1. I am interested in setting up a bat box in my back yard I live in Nairne in the Adelaide hills are there any pre constructed boxes I can purchase if so where and how do i go about purchasing one or some

  2. Hi Myllika

    I come from Nairne! I was still living there when I wrote this article. I dont know where you can buy a ready made one – but they are quite easy to build and you can source some good designs off the web. The main thig is to experiment. Can you do a trade deal with a local carpenter (veges for box building?)

    Good Luck!


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