Merced County Cooperative Extension
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Posts Tagged: Daniel Karp

Bringing out the best in wild birds on farms

California quail tend to offer more benefits to strawberry farmers than disservices, according to a UC Davis study's "multifunctionality index" of birds commonly found on the farms. Photo by Danny Karp, UC Davis

Natural habitat maximizes the benefits of birds for farmers, food safety and conservation

A supportive environment can bring out the best in an individual — even for a bird.

After an E.coli outbreak in 2006 devastated the spinach industry, farmers were pressured to remove natural habitat to keep wildlife — and the foodborne pathogens they can sometimes carry — from visiting crops. A study published today from the University of California, Davis, shows that farms with surrounding natural habitat experience the most benefits from birds, including less crop damage and lower food-safety risks.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, was conducted at 21 strawberry fields along California's Central Coast. It found that birds were more likely to carry pathogens and eat berries without surrounding natural habitat.

The authors said a better understanding of the interplay of farming practices, the landscape, and the roles birds play in ecosystems can help growers make the most out of wild birds near their fields.

“Bird communities respond to changes in the landscape,” said lead author Elissa Olimpi, a postdoctoral scholar in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at the time of the study. “As birds shift in response to management, so do the costs and benefits they provide.”

The single most important driver

The study looked at how different farming practices influenced the costs and benefits that wild birds provided on the strawberry farms. The scientists combined nearly 300 bird surveys and the molecular analyses of more than 1,000 fecal samples from 55 bird species to determine which birds ate pests, beneficial insects and crops, and carried foodborne pathogens.

They also ranked birds to see which were more likely to bring benefits or costs to farmlands. Barn swallows, for instance, got a “gold star” in the study, Olimpi said. Their mud nests are commonly seen clinging to the underside of barn eaves, from which they fly out to swoop over fields, foraging on insects.

But rather than resulting in a list of “good” and “bad” birds, the study found that most bird species brought both costs and benefits to farms, depending on how the landscape was managed.

The presence of natural habitat was the single most important driver differentiating a farm where wild birds brought more benefits than harm.

“Nature is messy, and birds are complex,” Olimpi said. “The best we can do is understand how to take advantage of the benefits while reducing the harms. Growers will tell you it's impossible to keep birds off your farm — you can't do that and don't want to from a conservation perspective. So how can we take advantage of the services birds provide?”

Win-wins for birds and farms

The study is one of several publications from UC Davis Professor Daniel Karp's lab highlighting the environmental, agricultural, and food safety impacts of conserving bird habitat around farms. A related study in 2020 found that farms with natural habitat attracted more insect-eating birds — and fewer strawberry-eating birds — so that farmers experience less berry damage on farms with more habitat nearby. Such habitats also bring greater numbers of bird species to the landscape.

“All together, these studies suggest that farming landscapes with natural habitat tend to be good for conservation, farmers, and public health,” said Karp.

Additional co-authors of this study include Karina Garcia and David Gonthier of University of Kentucky, Claire Kremen of UC Berkeley and the University of British Columbia, William E. Snyder of University of Georgia, and Erin Wilson-Rankin of UC Riverside.

The research was funded by the USDA and UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

Posted on Wednesday, February 23, 2022 at 9:38 AM
  • Author: Kat Kerlin, UC Davis
Tags: Birds (2), Daniel Karp (2), Elissa Olimpi (1), farming (5), farms (2), Food Safety (48), habitat (1), pathogens (2), Strawberries (22), uc davis (46)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Environment, Food

Researchers pinpoint which bird species pose food safety risk to crops

Species that form big flocks and are associated with livestock, like this invasive European starling, carry greater risks of foodborne pathogens. Getty photo

E. coli and Salmonella are rare in wild birds, Campylobacter more common

Concerns over foodborne risk from birds may not be as severe as once thought by produce farmers, according to research from the University of California, Davis, that found low instances of E. coli and Salmonella prevalence.

While the research found that the risk is often low, it varies depending on species. Birds like starlings that flock in large numbers and forage on the ground near cattle are more likely to spread pathogenic bacteria to crops like lettuce, spinach and broccoli, according to a study of food safety risk and bird pathogens from the University of California Davis. In contrast,  insect-eating species were less likely to carry pathogens.

The findings, published in the journal Ecological Applications, suggest that current practice of removing bird habitats around produce growers' farms over concerns the animals could bring foodborne pathogens into their fields may not solve the problem.

In this study, researchers compiled more than 11,000 bacteria tests of wild bird feces and pathogenic E. Coli and Salmonella were only found in very rare cases. Photo by Daniel Karp, UC Davis

“Farmers are increasingly concerned that birds may be spreading foodborne diseases to their crops,” said Daniel Karp, the senior author on the study and an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology. “Yet not all bird species are equally risky.”

Only one foodborne disease outbreak in produce has been conclusively traced to birds: a Campylobacter outbreak in peas from Alaska. While the bacteria can cause diarrhea and other foodborne illness in humans, it's less of a concern to growers than E. coli and Salmonella, which have been responsible for multiple outbreaks across the nation. 

In this study, researchers compiled more than 11,000 bacteria tests of wild bird feces and found that Campylobacter was detected in 8 percent of samples. But pathogenic E. Coli and Salmonella were only found in very rare cases (less than 0.5%).

In addition to the bacteria tests, researchers conducted roughly 1,500 bird surveys across 350 fresh produce fields in Western states and collected more than 1,200 fecal samples from fields. They then modeled the prevalence of pathogens in feces, interactions with crops, and the likelihood of different bird species to defecate on crops to determine risk.

Insect-eating birds pose lower risk

Based on the data, insect-eating birds, such as swallows, present a lower risk, while birds that flock near livestock, such as blackbirds and starlings, are more likely to transmit pathogens.

The data can help the agricultural industry determine risk and take action, such as separating produce crops from cattle lands. They also don't need to treat all birds the same.

“Maybe farmers don't need to be quite as concerned about all types of birds,” Karp said. “Our data suggest that some of the pest-eating birds that can really benefit crop production may not be so risky from a food-safety perspective.”

Farmers may be able to promote insect-eating species like this tree swallow by installing nest boxes without increasing food safety risks. Photo by Daniel Karp, UC Davis

Removing habitat can backfire

This study and the authors' prior work indicate that removing habitat around farms may actually benefit the species that pose more risk and harm the beneficial, pest-eating ones that are less risky to food safety. This is because many prolific insect-eaters may visit crop fields to eat pests but need nearby natural habitats to survive. In contrast, many of the bird species that most commonly carry foodborne pathogens readily thrive on both cattle farms and produce farms without natural habitat nearby.

Other findings

Insect-eating birds that forage in the tree canopy pose minimal threat because they are less likely to carry foodborne pathogens and come into direct contact with produce. They can also be valuable parts of the ecosystem, particularly if they eat pests that can harm crops. Installing bird boxes could attract the pest-eaters, as well as help with conservation efforts.

“We basically didn't know which birds were problematic,” said lead author Olivia Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University who was at University of Georgia when the paper was written. “I think this is a good step forward for the field.”

Additional co-authoring institutions include James Cook University, UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, University of Kentucky, University of Texas, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Washington State University, BioEpAr, The Nature Conservancy and Van Andel Institute.

The research was funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

Posted on Wednesday, January 5, 2022 at 9:30 AM
  • Author: Emily C. Dooley, UC Davis
Tags: Bacteria (6), campylobacter (1), crops (6), daniel karp (2), e.coli (1), food safety (48), pathogen (1), salmonella (6), uc davis (46)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Food

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