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Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse December 21st, 2014 by

Just like Anneti Bagyenyi, one of the leaders of a local women’s group in Kabale, in southwestern Uganda, many farmers struggle to control birds at crucial times of the cropping season. For the farmers growing climbing beans, the most troublesome are called mshure in the local Rufumbira language. These long-tailed mouse-birds like to eat the leaves of young seedlings as well as the flowers of the climbing beans, as such destroying entire fields.

Apart from using scarecrows and old cassette tapes that make a disturbing sound to the birds when the wind plays with it (likely the music on the tape itself was less disturbing at the time it was played out loud in the village), farmers came up with a simple, yet effective way. To prevent groups of birds from finishing a farmers’ entire field, all farmers of the community plant their bean crop within a period of two weeks so that the birds have abundant food. The birds can’t eat all of the beans at once, so most of the crop survives. This example shows how farmers can manage risks at the community level if individual control of a particular problem is difficult or impossible.

But still, farmers only reap the benefits from their own fields, not from their neighbours’ fields, so everyone is free to experiment with other control measures on their own land.

“When planting their very first bean seed in the field, some farmers add some dried tobacco leaves to the planting hole and they tell the bean: “May my entire field become as bitter as tobacco, so the birds won’t eat it.” Magical solutions like this often help people to deal with difficult problems, especially pests. When farmers are using magic, it means that they are lacking a technical solution for a real problem. Researchers who pay attention may recognize in farmers’ incantations and prayers a research demand.

“Does it work?” asks Anthony, the local extension guy.

“Of course it does,” says an old farmer who had entered the small village shop where we were having our interview with Anneti, curious about the foreigner who had appeared in their village on a Sunday afternoon.

Over the years, whenever I have a chance to talk to farmers, I get the impression that birds are a curse to farming. But not all birds are a burden, some can even be a blessing, as Anthony points out half an hour later when we walk through the village and pointing to a different species of bird.

“Look at that white bird. As a child, when we helped plough the field we would always look behind our backs to see if those white birds had appeared. If they had, our parents would say that the field was blessed.”

I thought about it a little more in the car that night, and realized that what farmers were saying was that a healthy soil was the basis for a healthy crop and a good yield. You would only see those birds if your soil was rich in living creatures that were brought to the surface with the ploughing.

Often farmers get confused when newly exposed to chemical fertilizer and pesticides, thinking that the way they have been farming so far was old-fashioned. When asking questions about their local practices they are quick at bringing up the “modern”, chemical solutions (even when in hindsight few may actually use them). But even in a first interview, if you can show farmers that you respect their own experiments and local practices, they will often share their ideas about birds and beans and tobacco.

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