NSF grant advances research on how predators help crops in fruit-growing areas

MSU Associate Professor Catherine Lindell is one of 16 recipients of grants totaling more than $20 million made in 2015 by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program.

MSU integrative biology graduate student Megan Shave with a nestling American kestrel banded in Leelanau County

MSU Associate Professor Catherine Lindell is one of 16 recipients of grants totaling more than $20 million made in 2015 by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) program for research on how humans and the environment interact.

Lindell and MSU colleagues, in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources —Philip H. Howard, associate professor of community sustainability, and Brian Maurer, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife and of geography—received a three-year, $498,650 grant to investigate whether predatory bird populations, in this case American kestrels, increase when researchers provide nest boxes in fruit-growing regions and whether these predators reduce crop damage.

 “Key to our research is thinking about the natural and human components of the fruit-growing systems in an integrated fashion,” said Lindell, who is with the MSU Department of Integrative Biology. “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 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. That means they are potentially a valuable resource when it comes to fighting fruit-crop pests.

“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.

“We have had excellent success to date in attracting kestrels to cherry orchards in Leelanau County, Michigan, through work conducted by graduate student Megan Shave,” Lindell said. “The current project will extend our efforts to blueberries in southwestern Michigan.”

Additionally, the MSU team 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. 

“I will be exploring this both before and after our team has more information about the effectiveness of next boxes for controlling pests, their economic costs and potential consumer interest in purchasing fruit grown in orchards with nest boxes,” explained Howard. “With a better understanding of these decisions, I will follow up with a national survey of fruit growers to estimate willingness to use nest boxes as a management practice. The analysis will identify the influence of geographic, grower and farm factors on interest in attracting American kestrels to orchards.”

The researchers’ previous work has found that, nationally, consumers are willing to pay more for fruit from orchards with nest boxes. However, the amounts were relatively small, about 25 percent more than an otherwise similar product. Consumers supported nest boxes because they viewed the practice as more natural than other management practices to control pests.

The researchers are working with a number of partners, including Michigan farming operations such as Cornerstone Ag and Cherry Bay Orchards, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Colorado State University and the American Kestrel Partnership. 

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