The fields of ripe grain lying in the path of quelea migrations are essentially doomed. And it is unlikely that the consequences will diminish. Indeed, marginal lands are increasingly employed to grow grains, and future destruction is likely to be even greater.

The quelea's influence is insidious. This bird not only eats enough farm grain to feed millions of people, it destroys the farmers' morale and drains all interest in planting more land. Where quelea occurs, family members must patrol the ripening fields for weeks, disrupting their lives and restricting all outside activities such as jobs or schooling. Its preferences even dictate what is planted—millions of families now grow dark-seeded, tannin-rich, poorly digestible sorghums, at least in part because the birds, quite naturally, dislike them (see Chapter 10).

Trying to scare away hordes of ravenous birds is clearly futile in all but the smallest plots. Efforts to control quelea with poisons, napalm, dynamite, pathogens, and electronic devices have failed. Dynamiting the densest concentrations can achieve temporary local control, but a single flock may contain more than two million pairs and spread over an area far too wide for an explosion to have much effect. However, one line of research is now showing some promise.

At sunset each day queleas congregate in patches of tall grasses or trees. As the sky darkens they crowd together, until thousands are packed side by side in a small space. Researchers at the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management have observed that (provided the night is dark and the roost is isolated and fairly homogeneous, such as a patch of bulrushes) the birds are loath to leave. When disturbed, the chattering flock flutters forward a meter or two and only reluctantly decamps into the soundless darkness beyond. Indeed the scientists found that, once the flock had settled in, they could "herd" it around in the roost on moonless nights. By blowing whistles, beating on metal, or making some other disturbance, they could hustle the birds from one end to the other at will.

This was the key. If a barrier (a sheet of glass or transparent plastic, for example) was placed across the middle of the roost, thousands of queleas could be forced to fly into it each night (at least, for three consecutive nights, after which the birds became more cautious). If a holding cage was placed beneath the barrier, at least some of the half-stunned birds tumbled in. They could then be dispatched humanely, or, even better, could be trucked directly to a slaughtering facility and processed like poultry.2

2  

These grain-fed fowl make good food and traditionally have brought high prices in Zimbabwe. However, Zimbabwe law now prohibits eating them because 16-65 million quelea are killed each year by spraying bird toxins onto their roosts and nests. It has been noted, however that people follow the spray teams and few dead birds remain on the ground for long.



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