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Keeping Pesky Birds Away From Fruit Trees

June 14, 2007

FRESNO, Calif. — You’ve planted and pruned, watered and watched it grow. And now, at last, the first crop of tree fruit is ripening on the branch. Then the birds descend. They perch and peck, pillage and plunder. And just like that, a perfect crop of tree-ripened fruit becomes a distant dream.

Short of grabbing a shotgun, what’s the average home gardener to do?

“It’s not an easy problem to solve,” says Vicki Baltierra, general manager of Spino’s Nursery in Fresno, of preventing birds from pecking their way through fruit and nut trees, berries, grapes and vegetable gardens.

Barbara and Bill Cosner, who live on 1\ acres in Madera Ranchos, have tried several things to keep birds from the handful of fruit trees they grow.

“We tried netting one year,” Barbara Cosner says. “The birds were always able to sneak under, no matter how we attached it (at the bottom). It’s not easy to get it on and off, either; it gets caught on everything, and as the trees get bigger, it gets even harder.”

Next was a life-sized plastic owl. One year they hung it in a tree. Then they mounted it on a pole.

“We thought it would be easier than the netting,” Barbara Cosner says. “But you’ve got to keep moving it because the birds get used to it. And they fade, and you have to replace them.”

Two years ago, she found a solution to protect her persimmons.

“I put paper lunch bags over each persimmon,” she says. Each of the two to three dozen bags was secured with a twist tie.

“You put them on when the fruit is still firm but a good color and before you know the birds are going to start coming around,” she says. “You don’t have to take the bags off; you can just feel the fruit and if it’s ready to be picked.”

She plans to bag her persimmons later this summer. She also has a stack of CDs she has saved (“those ones from AOL you always get in the mail,” she says) that she might string on a nectarine tree.

Hanging CDs, aluminum pie tins and soda cans are just some home remedies gardeners have used. Master Gardener Lee Fanucchi, who has more than 100 fruit and nut trees on 1{ acres in Fresno, Calif., recalls hearing of someone draping a garden hose in a tree to resemble a snake. He doesn’t know if it worked.

For several years after planting his first few trees, Fanucchi tied two 24-inch balloons with bird’s eyes on them to 15- to 20-foot poles; the balloons hung over the trees.

“It worked for a while, but the birds get wise,” Fanucchi says. “The thing with birds is you have to keep them off stride.”

Fanucchi found that a homemade contraption of 10-gauge wire loops covered with chicken wire worked well to prevent sparrows from eating lettuce in his vegetable garden. Netting draped over a 10-foot almond tree to keep blue jays away was not as successful.

“I got the netting caught in the limbs,” he says. “Once I got it snagged, I had the dickens of a time getting it to cover the canopy of the tree. I got so frustrated.”

These days, other than netting one grapevine, Fanucchi has adopted an approach shared by many home gardeners.

“I let the birds have the upper third and I get the lower two-thirds,” he says with a laugh. “I have enough that I can sacrifice a few to the birds. But for the backyard hobbyist with a limited amount of trees, birds are a menace.”

Master Gardener Chris Hays has assumed the share-and-share-alike philosophy, as well. She has about 30 large fruit trees, including peaches, plums, pluots, pomegranates, apricots, nectarines and persimmons, at her Fig Garden home.

“When I had cherry trees, I used netting, and it worked well,” she says. “I kept them pruned to about 8 feet. But now, it’s too unwieldy a task, so I just share.”

Keeping trees pruned small makes using protective netting easier. Netting also is ideal for berries, grapevines and vegetable gardens.

Mona Diaz, owner of Fernwood Nursery in Madera Ranchos, recommends planting EZ-PICK fruit trees. These are started in a nursery with lower branching structures so fruit grows closer to the ground; the trees should be kept pruned to 6-12 feet. Not only does this mean easier picking, Diaz says, but it also makes using protective netting more feasible should a gardener choose this option. Fernwood Nursery sells EZ-PICK trees during bare-root season, although Diaz recommends orders be placed in August.

“With the low branches, the birds don’t go down that low,” Diaz says. “Birds want to get up high, away from people or anything that will disturb them.”

Master Gardener Nita Lackey, who lives on a half-acre in Madera Ranchos, recommends a certain pruning technique to protect grapes.

“I try to keep the canopy heavier on top _ leave the top foliage _ which prevents birds from seeing the fruit when they fly around,” she says.

The bottom line, experts and growers say, is this:

“A lot of people plant enough trees that they’re willing to share the fruit. That’s the best way,” Baltierra says.

“Or you could always get a cat.”

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SOME TIPS AND TECHNIQUES THAT MAY WORK

METALLIC TAPE

This shiny red-and-silver tape comes in rolls in various widths and is available at many home improvement stores, garden centers and nurseries.

Cost: Hardware stores and nurseries have a 50-foot roll for $4.99; a 100-foot roll for $5.29; 1-inch wide red tape in a 150-foot roll for $4.95; and a 1-inch wide 150-foot roll of silver tape for $2.99.

To use: Robin Atkinson, who works at H&E Nursery, recommends cutting footlong strips; about six evenly-spaced strips should be tied to the branches of a tree that stands 12-15 feet tall. The strips will flap in the breeze. “It creates motion, and the birds are very sensitive to motion,” Atkinson says.

Pros: Inexpensive, easy to use.

Cons: “It will work for a short time _ until the birds realize that particular type of motion doesn’t bother them,” Atkinson says. “Anything you use, they figure it out sooner or later.”

NETTING

This protective mesh covering for fruit and nut trees, berries, grapes and vegetables comes in rolls and is available at many home improvement stores, garden centers and nurseries.

Cost: At hardware stores and nurseries: Three sizes: 14-by-14-foot ($9.99), 7-by-20-foot ($8.99) and 14-by-45-foot ($21.99); 7-by-21-foot roll for $7.29 and a 28-by-28-foot roll for $31.99. A 14-by-14-foot roll for $5.47; and a 14-by-14-foot roll for $7.19.

To use: Drape the netting so it covers all foliage and tie at the bottom.

Pros: A good barrier when used correctly. Best for small fruit and nut trees, berries, grapevines and vegetables. “I’d say it’s the best thing,” says Robin Atkinson, who works at H&E Nursery. “Everything else is just a little unreliable.”

Cons: On trees taller than about 6 feet, two people and a ladder are a must. Also, it’s difficult to take on and off as it tends to snag on branches.

“Netting is the best, but it’s the hardest to use,” says Ray Bearden, an employee of Fernwood Nursery on Avenue 12 in Madera Ranchos.

If not properly tied at the bottom, birds can become tangled in the netting.

“Sometimes the birds sit on the branch and eat your fruit” through the holes in the netting, says Vicki Baltierra, general manager of Spino’s Nursery in Fresno.

FAKE OWLS AND SNAKES

Plastic and inflatable owls and snakes are available at some home improvement stores, garden centers and nurseries.

Cost: At hardware stores: a life-sized plastic owl with a rotating head for $27.99. A life-sized great horned owl, also plastic but with no moving parts, goes for $17.99.

Lowe’s has the same great horned owl for $12.97.

Nurseries have: a life- sized, blow-up owl and a 6-foot blow-up snake, both $5.99.

To use: Owls should be placed in a tree or on a building or other structure near the problem area. Snakes should go on the ground in vegetable gardens. Cheryl Engoring, department lead in the nur- sery at Orchard Supply Hardware on North Blackstone Avenue in Fresno, says owls also can be hung or mounted on a post. “Some people say it works. Some people say it doesn’t,” she says. “It works temporarily, but after a while, the birds realize there’s no threat.” Pros: Easy to use, adds a whimsical touch.

Cons: Must be frequently moved.




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