Keeping the Rice from Going to the Birds

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This is the final in a two-part series about our visit with Matty Demont of the Africa Rice Center in Saint Louis, Senegal.

Rice farmers in Senegal have a lot of challenges. Drought, insects, and lack of tools or inputs all decrease incomes and yields. But one of their biggest problems comes from the trees surrounding rice fields—birds. But it’s not the rice that attracts the birds, at first; it’s the weeds that inundate fields after heavy rains that bring the birds to the fields. The birds use the weeds as shelter, eat the seeds of weeds, and perch on weeds to eat rice. According to Matty Demont, a researcher at the Africa Rice Center, the decrease in rice yields as a result of birds varies from year to year. Most years, there’s an 11 to 15 percent reduction in yield, but in 2006—when the rains were particularly heavy—farmers in Saint Louis lost 30 to 50 percent of their rice to birds.

Sending kids into the field to scare the birds is a traditional method of saving crops but it causes children to miss school. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

And while avicides, or chemicals that kill the birds, are “good in the short-run to help farmers,” says Demont, he also acknowledges that they’re not the most environmentally sustainable or humane way to take care of the problem. But the traditional method of keeping birds out—sending children into the fields to scare them away—isn’t sustainable either because it causes kids to miss school.

That’s why the Africa Rice Center is working with farmers and researchers to help develop a set of more environmentally friendly recommendations that also protect rice crops. Studying rainfall patterns to predict when bird populations will be more populous, implementing crop insurance programs that protect farmers from lost yields, planting wheat around rice fields—and giving the birds something else to eat other than rice—can all be effective strategies.

For more on the Africa Rice Center’s work in Western Africa, see Encouraging Consumption of Local Rice by Improving Local Quality and Processing.

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