The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

The Birds!

April 21st, 2009 · 7 Comments · Posted in Blog

Tomato, branches and leaves lying on the ground

Tomato, branches and leaves lying on the ground

We like to boast that we have very few pests in our kitchen garden in the District of Columbia, about a mile from White House. No pesky rabbits or gophers or deer munching on our produce. No squash borers or grubs or beetles inflicting damage.

But every once in a while, for reasons still unclear, we are attacked by birds. I know it’s birds, because I’ve seen them in action–starlings, mostly. And it’s not like they swoop down and lay waste to our crops. No, they are stealthy. They wait until we are not looking. They pick a target, then zoom in.

Years ago it was the new bean plants and cucumbers just coming out of the ground. For some reason, the birds liked to nip off the tops of the plants for no apparent reason. They nipped, and just left the pruned foliage lying on the ground. Last fall, I essentially walked away from the garden and our fall crops after birds destroyed the seedlings I had placed outside in trays. One day they were soaking up the sun. The next, reduced to helpless nubs.

This year I’ve been right on schedule with my seedlings. The tomatoes were looking especially vigorous. We don’t have a greenhouse or grow lights, so I was placing them in the yard during the day. Then, the birds attacked. First it was one tomato plant missing a branch here, a branch there. Then a second plant devastated.

When the rains finally broke and the last frost passed, I jumped at a chance to put my tomato plants in the ground. Twelve plants in all, each in a nice hole with plenty of compost, surrounded by a mulch of shredded straw and a big cage made out of concrete reinforcing wire. I hoped the cages would scare the birds away.

Nope. The very same day they were planted I noticed one of the cherry tomatoes had been completely stripped of branches. All that was left was trunk with a few stubs for branches. The following day I noticed the plant pictured above, one of our Mortgage Lifters, surrounded by branches and leaves inexplicable snipped and left on the ground.

For a moment, I thought perhaps the birds were doing this because they are looking for material to build their nests. But then I remembered the carnage last August. They weren’t building nests then. And they just leave the plant material lying on the ground. What could be the point? Are they trying to send us a message?

It’s a mystery.

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  • Sylvie

    how frustrating!!!! Does it happen just with seedlings, or do they also go after larger plants? but then, I suppose larger plants would stand the onslaught better….

    Crows will sometimes go after emerging corn here, pulling the seedlings out of the ground. They leave the corn alone when it’s bigger (a ffot or so). To foil them, I cover my bed with agricultural fabric (Reemay is one brand name). The fabric is light enough to let the plant push it from below, and as an added bonus, give a few degrees of frost protection… I also have to cover the blueberry plants before the berries turn, otherwise I don’t get any. Netting won’t do it. Seems I have to hide things so birds won’t go after them. But that’s the only two crops I have had bird issues with.

    Maybe look into Reemay? or keep your homemade cloches on….

  • gmanubay

    I can’t remember if I told you this before, but my mom would hang old CDs around her fruit trees to keep the birds away – they were shiny and moved with the wind, so a good deterrent. Maybe you could tie some up on your cages?

  • ppolischuk

    Sounds like the makings of a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie. Hanging CDs and small aluminum foil flags on twigs have helped keep the birds from digging too excitedly in my backyard. Looks like I’ll have to put up some shiny things in the front when my tomatoes go out this weekend.

    Do you have a backup plan? I saw Whole Foods had some exceptionally leggy tomato seedlings out front yesterday evening, and with a decent selection of cultivars.

  • fastweedpuller

    I think the birds are simply trying to make sure your tomatoes have strong root systems!

    Your toms should be fine, though I understand how frustrating it can be. Our one and only bird pest is chickens so that’s our own fault, right?

  • Amelia

    Ohh, then maybe it was birds that attacked my tomatoes the other day. I wrote on my blog that it was a squirrel, but only because I see them on my fire escape a lot. Whatever it was, it definitely ate the foliage it stripped. No detritus of the carnage, just the sad little beheaded seedling.

  • Ed Bruske

    Sylvie, the birds only attack the smaller plants. I’ve thought about covering them with Reemay, but keep hoping it won’t happen again. I’ll be better prepared with the fall crops.

    Grace, I thought about stringing some aluminum foil on the tomato cages. I like the idea of old CDs. Trying to think which ones I might use….

    PP, no backup plan, other than the extra tomato plants I have growing in pots. I hope to give those away to a deserving gardener.

    El, I hope all that energy is going back to the roots. In fact I am leaving the de-nuded plants in place, confident that they will grow new leaves. It is frustrating when you’ve raised these plants from seed. Yes, a setback. But on the bright side, we don’t need all the tomatoes yielding at the same time. It will do us good if some are a little delayed.

  • maggie

    I would have said that they were perhaps looking for bugs on the plants. But you seem pretty pest free… Starlings are awful creatures (and I generally like feathered things). I’ve yet to see one at our farm. I keep my fingers crossed. The cds have worked great in our garden strung among the tomato stakes and hanging from the scarecrow.