By Forrest Scharf, PAg., Provincial Specialist, Fruit Crops
Watching fruiting plants bring forth flowers, appreciating the work bees perform pollinating flowers, and then watching fruit expand and develop is very magical. Most growers eagerly anticipate that the fruit will ripen into something of value that promotes good health.
Unfortunately, the pathway the fruit takes to get into the mouths of paying customers can be interrupted by birds.
The bird species that has had the biggest negative impact on the haskap industry is the cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). These birds are extremely aggressive haskap foragers and appear in orchards before the fruit is fully ripe. In 2017, cedar waxwings arrived at the Canada-Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre (CSIDC) orchard in Outlook in early June and waited for the berries to ripen somewhat before foraging the entire crop in a few days around June 20. In 2018, the waxwings didn’t wait: they arrived at the orchard in late May, and robbed the unripe green fruit in the first and second week of June.
Waxwings typically migrate into orchards in medium-sized flocks of 30 to 75 birds. They appear to have scouts that assess the status of crops and then direct the rest of the flock to the site when the feeding is best. In 2018, the birds’ late-spring food sources were perhaps not as readily available, so the waxwings consumed the unripe fruit early. They returned to orchards later to take more ripe fruit. Cedar waxwings are internationally protected (Canada/United States), so growers are not at liberty to shoot them. The most successful way to keep them out of haskap orchards is to cover the plants with netting.
A recent addition to the list of birds that rob haskap orchards is the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). These invasive birds started being documented in Saskatchewan in the 1940s, when they appear to have targeted grain elevators as a food source, as the province’s fruit industry at that time was essentially limited to family gardens. The birds have been around while the fruit industry has been developing over the past 50 years, but they did not become a significant pest until 2018. In Alberta recently, starlings robbed roughly 30,000 haskap plants overnight just before they were ready to be harvested.
These birds can travel in huge flocks. It is not a protected species, various control methods can be implemented, and there are various suppliers of bird-scaring equipment. In Saskatchewan, starlings have not robbed significant volumes of fruit from any orchards, but many backyard gardeners have reported seeing this species stealing fruit from their plants. Growers are encouraged to report any bird sightings and associated fruit losses to the Provincial Fruit Crop Specialist.