By Samantha Larson
With its blue back and rust-colored chest, the Western bluebird is a birder's favorite. Soon, viticulturists may number among its fans. According to research by Dr. Julie Jedlicka at UC Santa Cruz, the Western bluebird may serve as a natural alternative to insecticides at California vineyards. Jedlicka found that placing nesting boxes on vineyard plots lures populations of the entirely insectivorous bird, which in turn can fend off insect-borne blights such as the deadly Pierce's disease.
Ron Rosenbrand, vineyard manager of Napa Valley's Spring Mountain Vineyard, has put this research into practice. He discovered the agricultural value of the Western bluebird while fighting bluegreen sharpshooters, an insect that spreads Pierce's disease. Five years and 800 boxes later, Rosenbrand says he now has "almost zero cases of Pierce's."
Of the bluebird, Rosenbrand says, "not only are they beautiful to look at, they're tremendously effective. It's great having Mother Nature actually work with you rather than against you as a farmer."
Although her research is new, Jedlicka explains that the thought of using birds for pest control is not necessarily novel. But since the 1950s, much of the bluebird's preferred habitats—oak woodlands and savannas—have been converted into agricultural and urban land. That the bluebird's propensity to eat squirmy grub has earned it a new home in some California vineyards offers a hopeful solution to the species decline it has experienced over the 20th century.
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