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Banana birds in the bean patch March 29th, 2015 by

Most agricultural researchers have heard of the devastating banana bacterial wilt, which they predicted would destroy bananas and plantains in East Africa. However, rumors of extinction proved to be exaggerated: many bananas and plantains survived.

Still, banana populations have decreased, and one unforeseen consequence is that farmers now have to manage mouse-birds as pests of beans.

Bananas have been a staple food crop for centuries in Uganda, but when the banana bacterial wilt disease struck, many farmers had to seek alternatives for their livelihoods. This partly explains the sudden boost in upland rice production in Uganda in the late 2000s. In the highlands in the southwest of the country, most farmers abandoned bush beans in favour of climbing beans, which yield at least three times more and provide a new way to earn some cash.

But farmers were not the only ones to adapt. The fruit-eating mouse-birds suddenly saw themselves deprived of their favorite food. Being used to sweet, ripe bananas, they now turned to the sweet taste of climbing beans. While farmers were learning how to grow a new crop, they also had to quickly learn about managing a new pest.

Beating the birds with bounty proved to be the most successful strategy. Indeed, nowadays farmers all plant their climbing beans at about the same time so that the birds will have plenty of sweet flowers all at once. By sharing the burden with the entire community, the damage to the crop of an individual farmer is bearable.

As with lungfish evolving to gulp air, or fast-food chains adding salads to the menu, surviving is often about adapting. This is as true for farmers as for pests. Once again, I was struck by how complicated farm ecology is, and how each bit is related to others, in unpredictable ways.

Related blog stories:

Birds: farmers’ blessing or curse

When stakes are at stake

Scientific names of mouse-bird: Colius striatus and other species

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