May 1, 2013 2:26 PM
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) - South Louisiana farmers have been struggling this year to fight off birds feasting on newly planted rice seed. Blackbirds and ducks love rice, and it seems the spring weather here has not been hot enough to nudge the birds north for the summer, LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk said. "It stayed so cool for so long that a lot of birds are still here," he said. South Louisiana has both year-round and migratory flocks of various species of blackbirds and ducks. Steve Linscombe, who heads the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station in Crowley, said all the birds like rice, but much of the migratory population has usually moved on by the time rice season gets into full swing. Jeffery Sylvester said some farmers this year have even delayed planting while waiting for the birds to leave. "It's not just what they eat. It's what they trample," said Sylvester, whose family farms about 4,000 acres of rice in St. Landry Parish. "... They'll eat everything. It's just getting worse." Farmers have tried several tactics to fight the flocks of thousands of birds that can feast on a newly planted field, from propane powered "scare" cannons that produce a loud boom to a special rice seed coating with a taste that birds don't like. Sylvester, like many rice farmers, said he often hires folks to ride around his fields in four-wheelers to fire shotguns into the air in an effort to drive the birds away. Saichuk said he has heard reports of farmers spending as much as $70 an acre on various strategies to deter birds, an expense that can quickly add up for a crop that is farmed in lots of hundreds or thousands of acres. "It costs the farmers millions of dollars every year," Sylvester said. The scare tactics have met with limited success. Sylvester said the propane-powered cannons work on some species of ducks but the devices don't seem to faze blackbirds or coots. "That doesn't seem to bother them. They can eat right beside it," he said. Saichuk said hiring a crew to ride around firing shotguns can be effective in the short-term, but eventually the birds become conditioned. "Those birds learn. They see the four-wheelers coming, and they go to the other side of the field," he said. Saichuck said actually killing the birds is not an option. For one, there are far too many, and he said the duck species are legally protected from indiscriminate shooting. Saichuk and Linscombe said one relatively new strategy seems to be effective - a rice seed treatment with a flavor that birds don't like. "If they taste a little bit of it, they leave and they don't go back," Saichuk said. Linscombe said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given approval for limited use of the repellent this year on 55,000 acres, about 20 percent of the roughly 300,000 acres of rice in south Louisiana. He said the hope is to eventually get federal approval for more widespread use of the seed treatment. "Where we have used the bird repellent, it works very well," Linscombe said.