Miss Your Sweet Corn? Here's Why: Birds and Drought

We're all aware that this summer's drought conditions in several areas of North America are affecting agriculture. It is difficult for farmers to grow water-intensive crops such as walnuts and avocados without extensive irrigation, often by importing water from less drought-stricken areas. Some crops, however, are affected less directly: thirsty birds that can't find water to drink are eating up moist crops. 

Here's an example: Fenton Farms, a small farm in Batavia, New York, has lost almost all its eight acres of sweet corn to birds, specifically grackles, starlings, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Owners Paul and Gail Fenton are accustomed to giving up "a couple hundred dozen" stalks to bird damage, but this year, all of their fields are devastated. Usually, the birds eat the field corn before turning to the sweet corn that's so highly prized by farm stand shoppers. However, this year the field corn suffered so badly from the lack of water that the birds had to turn to the sweet corn instead.

These troubles aren't occurring only on Fenton's farm. There's been significant bird damage to crops all over North America.

A shortage of sweet corn for human consumption is a small effect of drought. But the drought has a much larger effect on birds. For example, birds that are forced to find water on farms can face dangers there—such as mowing—that they wouldn't face in their normal habitat. Birds crowd one another at watering holes that are smaller or fewer than usual, increasing the spread of illness. Birds that eat insects will find less food when water levels are low because fewer insects will hatch.

What can we do to help? Well, aside from getting involved in local water policy and taking measures to conserve water, we can make more water sources available to birds. Bird baths and water features in our yards help, as does putting out moist food such as fruits and vegetables. Cleaning up local waterways, no matter how small, can make the difference between a good habitat where birds will congregate and a bad one that they'll pass on the way to the cornfield. 

So next time you wish you saw sweet corn at a farm stand, maybe you won't mind as much if you think about the thirsty bird it nourished. Then support the farmer: buy the tomatoes and peppers instead.