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Nov. 16, 2015

MSU is looking to protect orchards – with falcons

Catherine Lindell, Michigan State University integrative biologist, will use a nearly $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to attract more falcons to orchards.

Lindell and two other MSU colleagues are investigating whether crop damage decreases when the population of small falcons increases.

“Key to our research is thinking about the natural and human components of the fruit-growing systems in an integrated fashion,” said Lindell, an associate professor in the College of Natural Science. “This line of research is exciting because it may show that we humans can make landscapes more hospitable for declining predatory species, which may, in turn, enhance ecosystem service delivery, especially crop pest management by predators.”

American kestrels are small falcons and are the most common predatory bird in the United States. However, their numbers have been declining nationwide for reasons that are not clear to researchers. The birds prey on many species that cause damage to fruit crops, including grasshoppers, rodents and European starlings.

“We are studying whether we can increase kestrel populations in fruit-growing regions of Michigan and take advantage of their dietary habits to reduce the activity and numbers of species that eat the leaves, stems and fruit of cherry trees and blueberry bushes,” Lindell said.

Kestrels nest in holes in dead trees, meaning they are also attracted to nest boxes made of wood and placed on poles. The researchers are investigating whether they can attract kestrels to fruit orchards and fields by installing nest boxes.

Additionally, the MSU team, including Philip Howard, associate professor of community sustainability and Brian Maurer, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife and of geography, will interview cherry and blueberry growers to determine which factors influence fruit-grower decision making about pest management techniques like the use of native predatory birds.

The grant is one of 16 made in 2015 by the NSF’s program for research on how humans and the environment interact.

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