Study to look at use of native birds to control orchard pests

  • 20/09/2018

Native birds could be used to help in the fight against orchard pests, and reduce the amount of pesticides growers need to use.

A team led by Plant and Food Research will carry out a pilot study this summer.

With the blessing of iwi, scientists will catch and release native birds such as tui, korimako (bellbird), piwakawaka (fantail), riro riro (grey warbler) and tauhou (silvereye) currently present in apple, wine grape, berry and plum orchards in Palmerston North, Levin and Ohau. 

The team will use next-generation sequencing (NGS), a DNA-based method, to identify insect DNA from collected avian faeces, which will allow them to understand which insects the birds favour in their diet. 

"Birds could prove to be an excellent addition to the orchard ecosystem, particularly if they prefer to eat insect pests over insects that benefit growers," says Karen Mason, Project Leader at Plant and Food Research. 

"The NGS technology will help us better understand what insects native birds like to eat and whether they should be encouraged or discouraged from the orchard environment," she says.

Scientists say the new technology has advantages over traditional methods, offering a fast, accurate and relatively non-invasive approach.

The study, in collaboration with Dr Isabel Castro from Massey University, is part of a wider vision to incorporate more native plants and animals into New Zealand's horticultural production system.

It is hoped the project will provide some insight into another potential tool for growers to reduce chemical pesticides required to grow crops.

Attracting birds to orchards may also have secondary benefits.

"For example some of our nectivorous birds are highly territorial, so they may help keep other fruit-eating birds away."

"Our native species potentially have so much to offer. We should work with them to build a more sustainable future," says Ms Mason.

The team plans to expand the pilot study to look more in depth at various native species and the services they could provide and establish collaborations with growers and Maori communities.