Beam Me Up, Tweety! Using lasers to keep birds out of vineyards
There’s a beam of light breaking through the gray afternoon at Northwest Michigan Horticulture Research Station in Leelanau County, and it’s not the sun.
A green laser ray darts across an experimental vineyard managed by Esmaeil Nasrollahiazar, a viticulture educator for MSU Extension.
Nasrollahiazar is studying whether the laser, with its random flashing patterns and projections, might be an effective method for scaring birds away from Michigan vineyards.
“Michigan is located in the two main pathway(s) of the migration of the birds,” said Nasrollahiazar. “They need more energy and … rest so they come here. They enjoy fruits, and then they leave the state.”
But all that rest and relaxation takes a toll on vineyards.
One study found that of the country’s biggest fruit-producing states, Michigan suffers from the highest percentage of grape loss to birds. Researchers estimate Michigan grape growers lose around 9 percent of their total crop to birds each year.
But in Nasrollahiazar’s first year of laser experimentation, he had a loss of only about 4 percent.
“If we pick only one pattern, the birds, they're going to learn quickly,” Nasrollahiazar said. “If the laser beam is moving left, they're gonna go right and start eating grapes. So that's why the laser has several random patterns.”
Grape growers often rely on a combination of deterrents. Installing physical protection, like netting, is effective, but also costly and time consuming. Other strategies like cannons work for a while, but birds quickly become accustomed to the sound and return. Chemical repellents are cheap and effective.
Lasers aren’t yet widely used by growers in northern Michigan, but Nasrollahiazar thinks that could change. The technology doesn’t harm the fruit (or the birds), and Nasrollahiazar says while the initial investment is high — $15,000 to $18,000 — the laser lasts several years and only requires occasional bulb replacement.
Nasrollahiazar says he’ll wrap up his research in November and publish a paper later this fall.