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