I haven’t come across any wetas at the farm lately, but I have been engaging in a running battle with (normally) harmless sparrows. The property used to be a dairy farm and there is an old milking shed which we decided to convert to a plant nursery where we will grow seedlings. The conversion was done in April and May of last year.
Near the end of the project, I did a walk around with the builder and pointed out some gaps around the roof. I’d seen a lot of birds flying around and suggested that he patch up some of the holes so the birds wouldn’t decide to take up residence. He told me that birds wouldn’t be interested in a building because there were too many trees around for them to nest in.
Fortunately, he was a better builder than ornithologist. Because as soon as he had packed up his tools and left, four families of sparrows built nests in the very gaps I’d shown him. In no time, word was out and all their friends and extended families moved in. It was a veritable bird condominium.
I have two big issues with bird infestations. First, they poop a lot. And everywhere. They may not foul their own nests, but they think nothing of fouling every square inch of the adjacent area. Second, birds don’t like people and every time I walked into the nursery it was like I was entering a cave filled with bats at dusk.
Not only that, it’s hard to distinguish between a panicked bird who is trying to get away from you and an extra from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
However, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. They had already built nests, and presumably laid eggs and I’m not heartless enough to make expectant bird families homeless.
So for the past several months I have dodged birds and related bird bombs and watched proud parents feeding their babies. More recently, I’ve noticed the little birds flying around and lately there have been only the occasional visitations. This is where the term “empty nest” came from.
It seemed like a good time to make the nursery unfit for birdie habitation. I’d studied the problem and had a plan of attack for taking back the nursery.
The fatal flaw in Plan A was that it involved nailing or screwing long boards over the gap between the wall and the roof while standing on a ladder. To the extent it might be possible, it would probably require two people, one of whom would be me, and maybe two ladders.
Always happy to find an excuse not to get on a ladder, I thought long and hard and came up with what I thought was a better, totally natural solution!
One of the biggest threats to our revegetation program is the Australian possum which was brought to New Zealand in the hope of starting a fur trade. In Australia, the possum is endangered and protected but here it is considered a major pest because they love New Zealand native plants. It is estimated that around the country, they eat 21,000 tons of vegetation every day. In order to prevent possums from undoing everything we’ve done, we have installed bait stations around the property which I regularly stock with pellets that the possums find irresistible but which are hazardous to their health, to put it delicately.
Not only do possums eat vegetation, they also love bird eggs and baby birds, so controlling them also helps with our native bird population. Plus improving the vegetation will make it more appealing to birds for nesting so they stay out of the nursery!
My brilliant insight was that if possums eat baby birds, then adult birds probably don’t like possums and would try to avoid them. Of course I wasn’t going to do anything as foolish as introducing a possum to the nursery for sparrow control, but I figured that a reasonable facsimile of a mortal enemy just might convince the sparrows that the neighborhood was in decline and that it was time to move on.
The possum bait comes in big bags that feature a picture of the meanest, ugliest possum you ever wanted to see. I reasoned that if I were to cut out the pictures from a few bags and stick them to the eaves near where the birds come and go, I would have a clean, green, no impact solution.
My theory was that the birds would instinctively avoid what they (should) recognize as a predator. I was also counting on them not having sufficient cognitive skills to observe that the fearsome predator seemed rather flat. And that it hadn’t moved since their last approach.
I got to work with scissors and tape (and ladder) and soon had made the area as inhospitable as possible.
Ignoring the ridicule of my sceptical wife, I sat back with a cold drink, admiring my handiwork and hoping to see it in operation. I was looking forward to watching a sparrow hurtle toward its erstwhile home and suddenly come to a screeching aerial halt upon seeing the possum leering from over the entry way.
Initial observations were encouraging. Although I didn’t see headlong flight, it was clear that the birds knew something was amiss. Instead of entering, they swerved away and sat on the roof. Two or three seemed to be having some sort of council of war. I imagined that their agitated chirping translated into something like “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
After a while, I got bored, declared victory, and got on with other tasks. Later that day we packed up to head back to town. I was hearing a lot of chirping and saw a lot of sparrow activity over by the nursery so I decided to check things out and enjoy the havoc I’d created.
And I was the one who got the nasty shock.
Those chirps I was hearing had actually been laughs of derision. They had really been saying, “Is he kidding? Who is that supposed to fool? Ooooh, I’m soo scared!”
Hoards of sparrows were flying in and out of the forbidden zone with impunity and dancing merrily on the very spots I had put possum pictures. Not only that, one picture was flapping in the breeze hanging by a single piece of tape. I’m convinced it had been gleefully pecked loose by the creatures it was supposed to be terrifying.
My wife was trying, unsuccessfully, to not join the birds in their mocking laughter. I decided to let the birds savor their victory. I still have Plan A up my sleeve.
And we’ll see who laughs last.