Competitive Advantage?

Our high bush blueberry orchard compliments our vegetable gardens and pear and apple orchard. The blueberry orchard is relatively small,only about 20 shrubs, but many are mature and produce an abundant crop. Some of the shrubs are twenty years old, the youngest only a few years old. My newest shrubs have replaced older shrubs that were either damaged by ice storms or wildlife. Black bears can make a mess out of high bush blueberry bushes. It is easier for them to flatten the shrub and eat the berries on the branches that are laying on the ground.

For years we had few problems with pests. The birds, for some unknown reason, ignored the delicate fruits. Perhaps they were not plentiful enough. And only recently did bear damage become an issue. Weather damage was always the main culprit; heavy snows, ice storms, or worse strong winds after a heavy ice storm. I learned a long time ago that some of this damage could be compared to a natural pruning. Especially if it was the old branches that were damaged and that is often the case because the older stems are less spry than the younger branches.. The actual blueberries grow on branches that are at least one year old and are more prolific on the younger branches so losing old branches that encourages new growth is a plus. And it ensures that there will always be some new fruit in only two growing seasons.

But, like all things in nature, change is the norm rather than the exception. This year we had the potential for the best crop ever. The early spring was wet. When the blueberries blossomed there were record numbers of the white, bell shaped flowers. We have a terrific wild bee population in these rural hills and it’s a good thing because the domestic honey bee populations have waned due to a variety of diseases but primarily hive collapse. For almost the entire time that the blueberries were in flower we had clear, sunny weather. The bees were as happy as could be collecting nectar while spreading pollen that would guarantee a prime blueberry crop.

As the green berries developed I would check them frequently and marvel at their numbers. Thousands of berries adorned the one year old branches and it looked as though the freezer would enjoy the company of our wild harvest. I almost couldn’t wait. As the green berries began to turn red and then blue I noticed something that had not been a problem in the past. The birds seemed to be perching in the bushes as if they were inspecting the ripeness of the berries. Not to worry I thought. It hasn’t been a problem in the past and it won’t be this year either. Famous last words.

So as the berries began to ripen I noticed that a few of the ripest berries had fresh divots in the flesh. Peck marks that left the tell-tale sign of an upcoming bird problem.

Not wanting to over-react I decided that caution was the best option. I thought if I better understood the problem I might be able to avert severe actions like bird netting-something I consider to be a terrible nuisance. Putting netting on and taking it off each time before you pick berries, which is every other day for about three to six weeks, is a lot of work. Plus my blueberries are a significant part of my landscape and adorning these shrubs with ugly white netting totally detracts from the beauty of our gardens. I reasoned that if I really kept an eye on what was going on I could find a solution; a fix for a problem that was both easy and aesthetic.

I watched over the bushes for hours; mostly from my office window that overlooks the blueberry orchard. I noticed that robins would arrive, check things out, maybe eat a berry or two and leave. They were always in pairs and did little damage. But the other culprit, the cedar waxwings (one of the most beautiful birds in the northeast) had an entirely different game going on. They would always arrive as a male and female pair. They would taste the fruit in multiple places. If the fruit was ripe they would leave. This being counter intuitive it peaked my interest. About twenty minutes later the two waxwings would return with about a hundred other waxwings. In their first attempt they ate half of the ripened berries in the time it took me to get out of my desk chair where I was working, run down the stairs, fly out the back door and run to the orchard about 50 feet away. The birds scattered widely as I yelled at them, some hanging out in the nearby hemlocks waiting for me to leave so they could complete their harvesting task. I threw a stick in their general direction, not to harm them, but to let them know they weren’t wanted. They actually flew towards me before they looped away flying into the horizon in one last act of defiance.

I picked the remaining berries so that they would not be tempted and went back to the house where I would lay out my battle plan. I thought about their behavior and focused on the scout birds that went back to get the flock. I formulated a simple plan without any real knowledge that it would work.

Two days later when there was another crop of blueberries ripening and about ready for harvest the robins showed up again. They tested a few berries, ate a few, and left. I understood that they were not a major threat and eliminated them from my best laid plans. Soon a male and a female cedar waxwing showed up. Their predominately green and olive foliage accented with white, black, and red was gorgeous. I had to remind myself that this was serious business and that I should not be swayed by their unparalleled beauty. This was a war of wits, and I was hoping to prove my superior intellect!

I let the waxwings begin their berry testing and when they least expected it I went running out the door banging two pots and pans together and screaming like a madman. The cacophony of my strange attack surprised even me, the very planner of the attack. The birds were frightened, and who wouldn’t be, and I hoped that they wouldn’t return.

About an hour the two scout birds returned. You could tell they were nervous. They did not boldly fly right into my prized bushes but lurked around the edge of the yard looking for some crazy chap that could not be trusted. After a few minutes they reluctantly went back to the blueberry shrubs and began testing the fruit. Round two-repeat. Once again I ran out of our back door, banging two pots together and screaming like a banshee! Only this time I tripped and did a belly flop immediately in front of the orchard. Now, as I’ve explained before, I’m a big fellow. I’m six feet three inches and weigh in at two hundred and seventy pounds. And when I fall, especially an unpremeditated event, the earth shakes. It must have been the added dramatics that scared them out of their wits. The nervous birds flew off immediately.

I can’t say that I exactly dusted myself off because I fell to earth on grass. But when I picked myself up, and I did so very slowly, I noticed a few unexpected injuries. A scraped calf that was bleeding, bruised ribs, and a very sore right knee. I’ve been avoiding surgery in that bad knee, most of the cartilage has already been removed, and I really didn’t want to think about what just happened. After a few painful moments getting used to my new aches I limped back to the house on my nearly 61 year old legs, pots hanging from my hands loosely, not sure who had won the battle.

From my living room, for I did not want to climb the stairs to my office, I watched and waited for the cedar waxwings to return. They did not. In fact they never came back. The sheer magnitude of my fall to the earth sent them packing for good. And when they reported back to the flock that awaited news of ripe, delicious blueberries they probably said the crop had failed. Even waxwings have to retain a certain amount of pride.

And so the blueberry crop continued to ripen. I continued to harvest blueberries every other day. And yes I was a bit gimpy while doing so but I had the satisfaction of knowing I was victorious. The birds, I’m sure, consider our interaction a complete draw. After all, they left with no injuries.

Thus far I’ve harvested more than 25 pounds of berries. Almost all frozen for mid winter treats.

And yesterday a black bear showed up and crushed a 20 year old shrub.

Don’t worry, I’ll come up with a plan. I’m not sure what it will be but it won’t involve banging two pans and screaming my head off. I’ve already tried that with bears, but that’s another story.

Click on smaller photos to enlarge!

Written for www.wildramblings.com in August of 2012

  • Teresa Evangeline

    Pots and pans was certainly was a more natural way to deal with them. Sorry to read of your injuries, though the payoff sounds delicious. I haven’t actually seen the bears that eat my apples, but perhaps that’s a good thing. I enjoyed this post. Do I dare say I laughed?

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m not sure how natural banging pots and pans and yelling at the birds is but it may work because it is totally foreign the these birds. The deer eat our apples and the bears seem to stay in the woods in the fall unless there are no acorns or beechnuts. I’m glad you laughed. It was supposed to be, at least, a little funny! Thanks for stopping by.

  • Emily B

    25 pounds of berries?!?!?!?!?!? I think I need to become your neighbor!

    This was such a great story, Bill! Laughed out loud at certain points and could easily picture the entire episode. I don’t know if I would have had the patience or the insight to watch the birds movements and devise such an ingenious plan, but…now if I ever do get in a similar situation…I’ll know exactly what to do. :)

  • gardenpath

    Oh, my God this was funny! I really hope you were not injured, but sure wish I had the video of the scene. Once, in while in Freeport, ME, I saw a flock of waxwings empty a tree in no time flat. They didn’t even mind the sidewalks full of shoppers beneath them.

    I agree that the nets are ugly, but there must be some way to keep the birds at bay.

  • Wild_Bill

    Actually I’m going to get over 30 pounds before the season is over and we’ll eat ‘em all! I’m glad you enjoyed this. It was fresh in my mind, easy to write, and I had fun doing it. The plan, while not ingenious, may have been effective. Here it is about ten days later and still no cedar waxwings, but the bears are still hanging out in the shadows waiting for just the right moment. I’ve kept them at bay by picking all the ripe berries frequently. Thanks, as always, for reading my story Emily!

  • Wild_Bill

    Hi Sandy-Glad you enjoyed it. My knee is still a little snarky and Cooper the bloodhound insists on licking the scrape on my calf but I’m doing OK. Those waxwings are pesky when they want to be. I had no idea they used scouts to locate food but apparently they do. And the nets, they are simply not much fun, and just not very aesthetic. I’ll keep an eye on things next season and make adjustments to compete with the wildlife as required!

  • Montucky

    Fascinating actions by the waxwings! I will have to watch for that. The belly flop might work with bears, but I think I’d consider it a last resort!

  • http://www.facebook.com/sue.sweeney Sue Sweeney

    Where you live, there is enough wild food for the critters so they don’t need to eat from your yard, true? Very different down here in over-built
    Southern CT with 6 to 10 times our sustainable white-tail deer populations eating what’s left of the wild lands. Here, the competitive advantage is that humans have credit cards and buy food trucked in from other places.

  • Wild_Bill

    Although I don’t mind getting close to black bears I would not want to be on my stomach with my legs stretched out behind me! Nope, I have other ways of dealing with these big boys (and girls), although it is noisy.

    And yes I was amazed by the cedar waxwing behavior. I’d never observed this before.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yep. Plenty of food for the animals. I’m not sure humans have a competitive advantage trucking in food bought with credit cards. That’s part of the energy/climate change problem and part of the larger food security problem modern society faces.

    The problem with S. CT and much of the east coast is too many people, not too many deer, but no one likes to talk about that. If there were not too many people there would be adequate predators to lessen the deer population. Most large predators can’t live near high density human populations.

  • Hudson Howl

    Good luck with the bear, Bill. But am putting my money on Ursula. Sorry, as long as you plan on playing nice the bears intelligence is motivated by the degree of his hunger pains.

  • Find an Outlet

    Brilliant! Both your method of resolving the berry-blasting bird problem and your accounting of the story…all warriors should carry a set of pots and pans! I grew up in a house that had about 12 magnificent old blueberry bushes. We didn’t plant them, they were there. We used the netting. In the summer months we got so sick of blueberries—we didn’t can or freeze them. We just ate them in every imaginable way we could think of. It wasn’t until years later the power of antioxidants was discovered, and now I can’t afford the mighty treats, they’re one of the most expensive fruits in the supermarket. So feast on those hard-won berries and get better quick!

  • Wild_Bill

    I’ll have to rely on outwitting any bear who intrudes on my orchard. When they feast on apples in the autumn I don’t really care, but these precious blueberries are another story. So far keeping them well picked and leaving nothing ripe has worked. We’ll just have to wait and see! Nice to hear from you!

  • Wild_Bill

    I grew up amongst hundreds of wild blueberries. They grew on hummocks in the swamps. In good years the harvest was plentiful, but too often it was not so good. These domestic varieties are more dependable and the berries are LARGE. I wish you lived closer I’d share some with you!

    It is nice to know that pots and pans have multiple uses!

  • Hudson Howl

    My sister in-law grew up in the north, her father of Finnish decent was a life long woodsman, trapper, guide, lodge owner, farmer, who knew the bush like the back of his hand, in addition they maintained a large garden and orchard on their small sustenance farm nestled within an area where the black bear population is around 70per 100sq km. They never really had a bear problem with the garden. Neighbours would, but they seldom did. His thinking was that one bear every once in a while was a nuisance it was that bears progeny which posed the problem. So he did as his parents, approached them as you I think -removing ripe fruit, putting electric cattle fence around orchards and melon patches and general putting the run on a bear that ventured on the property -basically being as much as pain to the bear as the bear was to them. As he put it -over time the word got out among the bears; its easier to get food at that place rather than that one on the other side of the river. I guess it makes sense. Cubs learn from mumma bear, their cubs learn from them -where to get the best food that gives them necessary fat reserves for the winter. Be it the biggest stands of beech trees for beech nuts, the biggest berry patches, and in general the best place to roam undisturbed. It will be interesting to hear how you make out. Just curious, how common is the black bear in your area.

  • Wild_Bill

    This was very interesting to hear about, same exact thinking and strategy as I employ. I don’t know the bears per square mile or kilometer, but there are lots and lots. Generally they stay in the deeper woods, but in between natural crops they try to get whatever food they can. Some bears are smarter than others and never go near people. I suspect they live longer lives and are adept at avoiding hunters.

  • Hudson Howl

    I’ve read and heard First Nations People refer to it as ‘talking to the bear’. I guess in a way your having a conversation with your black bears. Not the interacting you want, but an interaction none the less.

  • Barbara

    Oh my goodness Bill – I laughed and laughed – such a terrific post – and your solution brilliant as well, though obviously painful unexpectedly. Waxwings used to visit and I even had a nest one year until a cat caught a baby then, they learned fast and never returned to nest. There was a tree at the north end of my property sort of like a smoke bush – but filled with berries every late summer – I would see a small flock of waxwings with such joy. But this year the tree is almost gone… all the dead branches sawn off by my neighbour, even though its on my property… however it is going… you are so lucky to have seen such a large flock even if they did predate your blueberry plot – and lucky you for having so many. I’m buying wild ones from up around Parry Sound I think or maybe Sudbury – but they’re dear…$10 a pint! but worth every penny when I get them.

    So thanks for the great story and the many laughs… great writing Bill… and as always, a pleasure to hear of what’s going on in your world…

  • Annie

    Wonderful and witty and very smart. Getting the food supply first is nature’s strategy. Species who can find and harvest food sources before their competitors survive, even with a banged up knee and sore ribs, they still win. Good job. Hopefully you can stay well enough to get through the harvest. Farming in your neck of the woods sounds mighty dangerous.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Barbara. I’m so happy that you found this to be funny. I really like to write pieces that entertain as well as educate which I find to be the most informative way of communicating. We are just about at the end of blueberry season, over 30 pounds harvested, and I probably lost four or five pounds to my wild friends.

  • Wild_Bill

    The value of raising some of our own food is worth the extra effort it takes to compete with wildlife. It’s nice that we can share a little, but too much and its lost income. Our largest predators of our crops are insects, and we battle those with organic methods to the best of ability. We lost a lot of tomatoes this year to the tomato horned caterpillar, pesky little pests they are.

    Bears present little danger. I’ve had very close encounters with them. I also think they avoid our place because of our two large bloodhounds who would love to tree the bears if they had a chance. Using dogs to tree bears in MA is illegal, but sometimes it happens when a bear comes into our space and the dogs are in the yard and not on a leash.

    I’m glad you found this witty. That was my goal. Sometimes when I write these humorous pieces I wonder if others will find them interesting or funny. It is good to know it works.

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, and given my Native American heritage (oh yes I prefer First Nations as an identifier) this makes perfect sense! When bears whine I listen. When they growl I leave.

  • Nature Drunk

    Great post! My sister said she witnessed the same behavior with the birds and pyracantha berries: Robins scout and cedar wax wings come in for the smorgasbord. I hope your injuries don’t give you any major problems and that you find many uses for those berries!

  • Wild_Bill

    It is amazing how intelligent birds are. In this case it was a pair of cedar wax wings that did the scouting for the larger flock. As almost everyone knows blueberries are rich, rich, rich in antioxidants and we love them. So going through 30 pounds in a year will present no challenge.

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