For Fewer Insect Pests, Invite Bluebirds into Your Vineyard

January 1, 2011 by Tina Gheen

Readers of this site are probably already familiar with bird-friendly® coffee, but what about bird-friendly wine? Can birds and vineyards coexist in a mutually beneficial arrangement?

Winemaking is big business in the state of California. Over 1 million acres of land has been converted for agricultural or urban uses due to the expansion of vineyards in the past 60 years. Much of this land was originally oak woodlands and savannahs, which are home to the western bluebird (Sialia mexicana).

blue and orange bird perched

Western Bluebird
© Michael R. Duncan

The western bluebird is an insectivore that nests in the cavities of oak trees. Its diet consists of arthropods such as moths, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles. Scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the University of California Santa Cruz wondered if the bluebirds' taste for insects could be used to a vineyard's advantage.

After all, a family of bluebirds (5 nestlings and 2 adults) can easily consume 124g of insects a day! And vineyards are susceptible to a variety of insect pests, such as the light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana), the European grapevine moth (Lobesia botrana), and the beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua), which would make a tasty meal for a hungry bluebird. Instead of using pesticides to control the insect pests, why not employ birds for the task?

The scientists set up an experiment to test the idea. They divided two organic vineyards in half and installed nest boxes on existing trellises along the grapevines on one half of each vineyard. With the addition of the nest boxes, the team found the number of insectivorous birds increased dramatically. The overall abundance of insect-eating birds quadrupled, and the number of bluebirds increased by a factor of 10. Three species were most commonly found in the boxes—western bluebirds, tree swallows, and violet-green swallows—but, not surprisingly, the bluebirds were by far the most dominant species, occupying 75% of the nest boxes.

pair of bluebirds at nest box
Tree swallow feeding chick in nest box
Green bird at nest box entrance

Left to right: Western Bluebird, Tree Swallow, and Violet-green Swallow
© Dan Garber

Installing the nest boxes certainly increased the number of birds in the vineyard, but what about the pest control aspect? The team needed a way to discover if the birds could take care of a insect pest control problem. They decided to conduct a sentinel prey study.

In a sentinel prey study, the prey (in this case insect larvae) are in some way immobilized or tethered so research teams can easily make calculations about predation rates without risking agricultural crops. Beet armyworm larvae were set out on pieces of cardboard for six hours a day in the morning on both halves of the vineyards. Then the team waited and watched.

The researchers found 2.5 times more larvae were taken from the areas with nest boxes than the control areas without boxes. And they found 3.5 times more larvae were removed from the study areas below bluebird nest boxes than in the control areas.

The experiment in the California vineyards was a great success, both for increasing the bird population and controlling pests without pesticides. The study demonstrates how conservation practices can benefit growers as well as birds. Adding nest boxes to the rows of grapevines significantly increased the number of insectivorous birds in the area, which in turn resulted in a decrease of insect pests along the crop rows. But this type of natural pest control isn't just limited to vineyards.

Agricultural growers across the US can support bird conservation while taking advantage of pest control services provided by insect-eaters, such as bluebirds, by placing nest boxes along annual crop rows.

Building upon the success of bird-friendly® coffee, organic vineyard owners can potentially target an established eco-friendly consumer market with their bird-friendly wine. The economic and ecological advantages of employing a bird-friendly pest management strategy can clearly benefit growers, consumers, and the environment.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Jedlicka JA, Greenberg R, Letourneau DK, 2011 Avian Conservation Practices Strengthen Ecosystem Services in California Vineyards. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27347. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027347

Download scientific paper