Linkages Among Farmer Decision Making, Beneficial Bird Species, and Pest Management in Fruit-Growing Systems

Understanding how ecosystems function and provide important services for humans is one of the great ecological challenges of the 21st century. This research examines how predator species contribute to reducing crop losses in agricultural ecosystems by consumption of crop-eating species, thereby providing an important ecosystem service that increases crop productivity. By learning how to enhance the abundance and activity of predators, agricultural productivity and environmental quality should improve. Strengthening this type of ecosystem service is increasingly important given evidence of negative effects of chemical pest management and consumer preferences for food produced with fewer chemical inputs. This project investigates whether predatory bird populations increase when researchers provide nest boxes in fruit-growing regions and whether the predatory birds in turn reduce crop damage by consuming crop-eating insects, rodents, and birds. Further, the project investigates factors that potentially influence fruit growers' decisions about the use of predator nest boxes, including economic and consumer-preference considerations. The work will result in greater knowledge about the contexts under which humans can enhance ecosystem service delivery. It will provide information about factors that influence fruit grower adoption of management strategies of crop-eating species. Finally, it will document the value of nest-box programs to the conservation of predatory bird species.

This research focuses on the American kestrel, Falco sparverius, a falcon whose prey species damage cherries, blueberries, and other fruits. The work addresses two hypotheses: 1) resource subsidies in the form of nest boxes for kestrels reduce prey activity and abundance and, thus, reduce damage to cultivated fruit and 2) the economics of fruit production, consumer preferences for particular pest management techniques, and kestrel conservation will influence grower decisions about installing nest boxes, and produce positive feedbacks on the growth of nest-box programs in agricultural regions. Researchers will survey abundance and activity of kestrels and crop-eating species, as well as fruit damage, in landscapes with and without kestrels using nest boxes. They will calculate costs and benefits to individual growers and regional economies of utilizing predator nest boxes in fruit-producing regions. The project will use a national survey of fruit growers and in-person interviews, along with modeling approaches, to investigate factors that influence grower adoption of predator nest boxes as a pest management practice. By integrating information from ecology, economics, and food systems sociology, the project will improve understanding of linkages between natural predator-prey effects, the degree to which humans can manipulate such effects through providing resources to predators, and the potential for factors other than economic ones to influence grower decisions about agricultural practices.

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