Ask the Master Gardener: Use netting, Mylar streamers, balloons to keep birds out of vegetable garden

By: Laurie Meyerpeter Placer County Master Gardener
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Question: The blasted birds are eating my lettuce and broccoli seedlings. What can I do? May I use a gun? Answer: It’s common for birds to eat young vegetable seedlings in the fall. Many are small migratory birds and after a long flight to the Central Valley to overwinter, they’re hungry and thinking “salad. Gardeners sometimes mistake bird damage for snail damage because it’s hard to imagine tiny finches or sparrows being so destructive. Bird damage is sometimes visible on young plants as “V” shaped pecks on the side of leaves, although just as often the whole plant is missing. It’s primarily an autumn and winter phenomenon, although birds are voracious eaters of fruits and berries in the summer months as well. Most birds are protected as migratory birds. A depredation permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the supervision of the local county agricultural commissioner is required for removal, either with traps or guns. And what kind of person wants to spend the day shooting robins or tiny finches anyway? The most effective method of preventing bird damage is with bird netting. The netting is available at most garden shops and places that sell gardening supplies. Construction of a frame to hold the netting away from the leaves is desirable because birds may peck lettuce through the mesh. A framework can be as simple as some branches or scrap lumber stuck in the earth around the seedlings to hold the netting away from the leaves. Less effective alternatives include frightening devices such as Mylar streamers and scare-eye balloons, as well as chemical repellents. These must be rotated to keep birds wary, but may possibly be useful in certain situations where bird netting isn’t suitable. Once birds discover your “salad bar,” they may continue to patronize it throughout the winter so protection is recommended throughout the season. Damaged seedlings will usually resume growth once they aren’t being snipped and pecked. Replace severely damaged plants or missing ones with new seedlings from a nursery. After your tender vegetable plants are protected, you’ll be able to enjoy the myriad of birds that winter here in the foothills and Central Valley. Have gardening questions? Call the Master Gardener hotline at (530) 889-7388.