For many farmers in Kenya, pests are a big problem. They destroy your crops or lower the quality of your produce. Most of the time, the culprit is either an invertebrate (e.g. insects) or a rodent (rats, mice, moles etc). And in some cases it's a bird or another type of animal. Many people quickly turn to chemical pesticides as the solution. There are however other more natural pest control methods that are better for us and the environment.
Almost every pest has a predator that is more than happy to make a meal of it, like a cat to a mouse. One very useful pest control method is to let the predators do their job. Predators in farmland provide the 'ecosystem service' of controlling pest populations. And when it comes to insects and rodents, one of their most efficient predators is birds. Some research done in Kenya showed that Sukuma wiki (kale) suffers more than twice as much damage in farms with few birds than those with many birds.
Here are some of the birds that will help you keep pests at bay on your farm:
White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher (Melaenornis fischeri). A common and easy to recognize bird of the highlands. It eats many different types of insects including various agricultural pests like aphids and locusts.
The African Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis) is also common in farmlamd. It is found throughout Kenya, except the driest areas of the north and east.
The Black-backed Puffback (Dryoscopus cubla) belongs to a family of small but highly voracious predatory birds called bushshrikes (Malaconotidae). Puffbacks eat plenty of caterpillars and are great to have in your farm to keep those crawling pests in check. Some of the larger bushshrikes also eat bigger pests like rodents. Maintain some patches of indigenous (kienyeji) trees and bushes in your farm to attract puffbacks and other bushshrikes.
Black-backed Puffback eating a caterpillar.
Another group of highly active predatory birds, related to the bushshrikes, is the shrikes (Laniidae). Their prey is similar to that of the bushshrikes so they are also useful birds to have in your farm. The one in this photo is a Northern Fiscal (or Common Fiscal) (Lanius humeralis).
Cisticolas (Cisticolidae) feed on the tiny insects that the larger insectivorous birds might ignore. Cisticolas living in farms therefore provide an important ecosystem service to farmers. Pictured here is a Coastal Cisticola (Cisticola haematocephalus) in Kwale County.
Grey-backed Camaroptera (Camaroptera brachyura) - another member of the Cisticolidae family. This species likes dense bushy habitat, but some other birds in this group like grasslands or well-wooded areas. Any sort of natural vegetation that you conserve on your farm will attract some sort of birds that will benefit you.
Common Drongo, or Fork-tailed Drongo, (Dicrurus adsimilis) - another highly insectivorous bird that you should be happy to see on your farm.
Rüppell’s Robin Chat (Cossypha semirufa). This is a bird you will hear a lot more than you see, They like to sing melodiously but often stay hidden in dense vegetation. They also mimic the sounds of other birds and animals. They however play their part in eating the insects in your farm too. Rüppell’s is a highland bird, but in other areas you will see its cousins like the White-browed Robin Chat (Cossypha heuglini), Spotted Palm Thrush (Cichladusa guttata) and Bearded Scrub Robin (Cercotrichas quadrivirgata).
Pretty much all birds that mainly eat insects will benefit your farm in some way. This Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus) was having crickets for lunch.
When it comes to pest control, birds of prey (raptors) are your best friends. Depending on the size of the raptor, they will hunt pests ranging in size from locusts to monkeys and young bushpigs. This Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) would be more than happy to feast on the rats and mice in your farm.
Augur Buzzards (Buteo augur) are common raptor in the highlands. They're known to be good hunters of moles and other small mammalian crop pests. During the night, owls (Strigiformes) are on night shift duty eating their fair share of pests in farms.
Smaller raptors like this African Goshawk (Accipiter tachiro) or falcons (Falconidae) will often target the small seed-eating, leaf-eating or fruit-eating birds that might cause damage to your crops e.g. Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea), various other weavers (Ploceidae), seedeaters (Fringillidae) and Speckled Mousebird (Colius striatus).
A pale Wahlberg's Eagle (Hieraatus wahlbergi) hunting in a farm in Kiambu. Many farmers view birds of prey as thieves that are just trying to steal their chickens or young goats. There are several ways of protecting your poultry or stock from birds of prey and a lot of info on this is available online. If you invest in some good stock protection measures, the raptors will not be a problem and they will in fact help you to keep pest numbers low on your farm.
In general, any farm is better off with birds than without them. To attract birds to your farm, maintain some patches of natural habitat such as woodland along a river, patches of grassland, a wetland or some thickets at the edge of your farm. If you plant trees around your farm, make sure you plant indigenous trees, not exotics.
Also, minimize the use of pesticides. Birds that eat insects sprayed with pesticides die of poisoning and some pesticides affect predators higher in the food chain like raptors. In addition, pesticides also kill the beneficial insects like pollinators (bees, butterflies, etc) and predatory insects that hunt the pests (spiders, praying mantis, lacewings, assassin bugs, etc).
Try organic farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and let nature's pest control agents do their job. It's much better for the environment and better for people too, as pesticides also affect our health.
If you are able to identify birds on your farm, please join the Kenya Bird Map project and help us document the distribution and status of birds in Kenya's farmlands.
To learn more about the birds of Kenya and other parts of Africa, have a look at these book recommendations.