Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Have locust plague; need birds.

There's been a lot of talk in the Australian news media over the past few months about the locust plague that is expected to sweep over the grain growing regions of NSW, Victoria, and South Australia later this spring.

Individual farmers stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grain crops - but we are being soothed with the assurance that the NSW government has an "arsenal" on standby to tackle the locust attack.

What's in the government's arsenal? Mostly toxic chemicals, such as:

* fipronil - a broad spectrum insecticide which is highly toxic to all insects (including non-target species), as well as fish, aquatic invertebrates, and many species of bird.

* fenitrothion and malathion - both of which are organophosphate pesticides. These insecticides are considered to be "slightly toxic" to birds and aquatic organisms, but, if it happens to get into your body, malathion breaks down into the far more toxic chemical malaoxon.

Generally speaking, organophosphate pesticides irreversibly inactivate acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme which is essential to nerve function in insects, humans, and many other animals.

Organophosphate poisoning can cause a slew of symptoms ranging from sweating and headaches, through to weakness, tremors, loss of coordination, and loss of consciousness.

Spraying with fipronil; playing with fire.

Fipronil is one of the main chemical causes blamed for the spread of colony collapse disorder among bees. Fipronil is deadly to bees, but even at sub-lethal doses, fipronil has been shown to reduce bees' navigational abilities.

Being able to navigate to and from the hive is central to bees' survival. And bees (as pollinators) play a critical role in the production of many fruits, vegetables, and nuts for human consumption. If we lose bees, we also lose an awful lot of food.

But just how toxic is chemical locust control to other "non-target" species? Consider this anecdote from Peter Bennett, on p.52 of his book Organic Gardening (6th edition):
The destruction of magpies and many other insect-feeding birds over large areas where locust plagues have been ineffetively sprayed at great expense is all part of the same great tragedy. I well remember one farmer in Victoria a few years ago, who, when driving me to Melbourne from his farm in the Shepparton district, spotted a common magpie feeding near the roadside and pointed it out to me with almost wild excitement. I exclaimed "So what!", whereupon he explained to me that magpies, normally resident in tens of thousands in that locality, had not been seen for years; since the last Dieldrin attack on grasshoppers.
If I had the government's locust-control budget at my disposal, I'd fill my arsenal with locust-loving birds. Chickens would be my first choice.

I suspect that most people would laugh at the idea of using chickens to control locusts, but I have to ask: why not?

Some of the obvious questions / objections are:

Q. Surely you'd need millions of chickens to eat all those locusts?
A. Australians already slaughter well over one-and-a-quarter million chickens every day. (According to the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, a total of 470 million chickens were slaughtered for meat in Australia last year).

Q. How would all those birds be transported?
A. Hundreds of millions of chickens are already transported to slaughterhouses in Australia, so chicken transport on a very large commercial scale is nothing new. Furthermore, Joel Salatin of Polyface farm has proven the validity of mobile chicken houses.

Q. Would modern, over-bred chickens know what to do with a field of locusts?
A. Believe it or not, the Chinese have already addressed this very issue, by training birds to eat locusts before sending them out into the field to clean up. (The Chinese have found ducks to be even more effective at eating locusts than chickens - but we don't currently have a large duck industry in Australia).

... authorities in the worst-affected Xinjiang province in China have recruited locust-eating ducks to combat the menace, the official Xinhua news agency has reported.

The "duck soldiers," specially trained by farmer Yang Dayuan, are capable of eating more than a pound of locusts every day. What's more, they even eat locust eggs that are laid in the marshy alkaline wastelands.

An environmentally friendly locust-crunching method, the duck soldiers add a boost to the circle of life, Yang told the British daily The Times. "The ducks will grow healthy and fat and will get a higher price on the market after they retire from pest-control duty."
Duck patrol!

Q. Australia is a very big country - how would you know where to take the birds to?
A. The same way that you know where to spray your pesticides. According to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Land managers [e.g. farmers] are the frontline in the successful monitoring and control of locusts. It is vital (and a requirement under the Act) that they take action to notify their local LHPA of any presence of locusts on their land and control locusts.
Q. Wouldn't the locusts just fly away when the birds arrived?
A. Not if the timing is right. After they hatch and emerge from their underground "pods", locust nymphs have to moult several times before they finally develop fully-formed wings. The locusts literally "band" together (on foot) for weeks before taking flight. Hence, according to the NSW Locust Control Program Strategy:
Ground control is the most effective and efficient method of controlling plague locusts. The locust nymphs are most easily controlled when they congregate together into bands. This is also when locust numbers are at their densest.
So, regardless of whether your weapon of choice is toxic chemicals or hungry birds, the best option is to attack the locusts before they're able to fly away.

Q. Do you honestly think that controlling locusts with birds is possible?
A. Absolutely. After all, farmers already use birds to control locusts in Asia and Africa.

Certainly, it would be much cheaper and easier to use chickens to control locusts on, say, a 7 acre farm than on a 7,000 acre farm. But that being the case, maybe, as a nation, we Aussies need to completely re-think our concept of "modern" agriculture, which enables (and, indeed, encourages) the very existence of 7,000 acre farms.


  1. Love your post. I was just saying to my wife that if they get as far south as Melton, we will release the chooks and let them feast!


  2. Thanks Gavin. If the locusts make it to your place, I hope your chickens have themselves a lovely feast.

  3. We are going to cover smaller fruit trees and vege beds with creanm shade cloth and I will let the chooks and let them have a ball

  4. i have been feeding the same pair of magpies for about 8 years and havent seen them or any others around our town since the locusts arrived i would be gutted if i thought they had come to any harm in fact we arent even seeing any sparrows around very strandge wonder whats going on magpie lover

  5. I have two large yards of chickens, one in an orchard, and I noticed that there were no locusts in these areas. Before readin your post I let my chickens out to hunt locusts in our home paddock around the house (approx 3 acres). It is amazing, in just one afternoon the chooks made a huge dent in the hoppers. They are out again this morning doing a great job. I plan on letting them out every day for a couple of hours to locust hunt, and at least that way may save my garden, lawn and fruit trees. Not a lot I can do about the rest of the 100 acre farm. Certainly would rather use chooks than spray.

  6. Your chicken and duck soldiers idea is by far the best, most economical, and most intuitive solution to the ozzie locust plague problem, which hubby and I witnessed when travellong around Australia dec 2010.

    I don't understand why ozzie farmers don't employ other edible sprays. Many such oils are cheap - neem or castor oil for example, and is safely used in many parts of the world. How about eucalytus? or tea tree oil? Or the simple soup water solution spray?

    Anyway, free range ducks and geese sound really great, favourite dinner birds in China, Taiwan, HK, Singapore, and France. Diversity of food farming is always a great idea!

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