Kenyan rice farmers fight quelea birds in Kisumu

Birds of quelea

Birds of quelea

The Rose Nekesa rice paddy in western Kenya has been overrun by huge swarms of the voracious red-billed quelea bird.

Thousands of farmers like her near the lakeside city of Kisumu fear they are harvesting their worst harvest in five years.

“I’m losing my voice because I spend all day screaming to chase away birds. These birds are not afraid of anything,” he tells the BBC, holding a huge lump of mud in one hand and a stick in the other.

“They’re already used to us and everything we throw at them.”

He hits birds with mud to scare them away from his crop. Her small, sturdy frame often allows her to run across her paddy while other swarms descend.

“When there are no birds, I can work alone. Now I need at least four people to work for me. It is very expensive. We are asking the government to intervene. This rice is the only source of income we have.”

The farmer chases the birds

Rose Nekesa tries to chase away birds with a stick in one hand and mud in the other

Lawrence Odanga, another small farmer, is also at the mercy of the world’s most numerous wild birds.

“I hear them. They are coming to destroy us,” he shouts in his native language, dholuo.

Even for the five people he’s hired to protect every acre of his crop, chasing away the birds is an impossible task.

Scarecrows, the occasional sound of vuvuzelas, and bird traps all proved ineffective.

“Birds have destroyed nearly all four acres of my farm. I’m not going to make any money. How am I going to get my kids to school?”

Sometimes referred to as “feathered locusts,” quelea are considered pests throughout eastern and southern Africa.

An average quelea bird can eat about 10 g (0.35 oz) of grain per day. Not a huge amount, but since flocks can number two million, they can collectively consume up to 20 tons of grain in 24 hours.

Chemical spraying

In 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that birds lost $50 million (£41 million) worth of crops each year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The latest quelea invasion in Kisumu, amounting to about 10 million birds, has already decimated 300 acres of rice paddies. According to the county government, another 2,000 acres are still at risk during the harvest season.

Other parts of the country have been hit worse. Millions of birds have invaded grain farms in southern Narok County, destroying about 40 percent of the crop.

Prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa, which has meant fewer seeds of wild grasses, a primary food source for the quelea, could be behind encroachment on croplands as birds seek an alternative, Kenyan scientists have suggested .

However, Paul Gacheru of the environmental organization Nature Kenya argues that climate change-induced drought is not the main driver.

He points the finger at changes in land use as “intensive agriculture and settlements mean that we are losing space for natural vegetation to grow. The quelea species are adapting to current land use”.

Increased grain production across Africa may also have increased the quelea populations as there is a greater source of food for their super nomadic populations.

Add to this the fact that the birds reproduce very quickly – three times a year with as many as nine chicks – allowing for a huge population explosion.

Since mud, sticks and vuvuzela didn’t work to protect crops, authorities turned to mass culling through chemical spraying.

Drone in the night sky

Drones are used to spray the roosting grounds

In 2019, the Kenyan government is thought to have killed eight million quelea who had invaded the Mwea Irrigation Scheme, the country’s largest rice-growing project.

Two million more were killed in Mwea in the same way last year.

This year, Kisumu authorities launched an air raid operation aimed at killing at least six million birds. Drones are being used to target birds’ roosting and breeding grounds with the pesticide fenthion.

Ken Onyango, agriculture manager in Kisumu county, said chemical spraying was the only way to save endangered rice paddies.

“You Can’t Kill Everything”

Fenthion is highly toxic to other species that are not the primary target. As a result, environmental scientists and activists from animal groups warn that spraying will have serious consequences on ecosystems, other plant and animal species, as well as human health.

“The question is, how do you plan to live with birds? Because you can’t kill everything, so that humans stay,” says Raphael Kapiyo, a professor of environment and earth sciences at Maseno University.

“But more than that, we’re saying that the act of trying to control birds with chemicals is so dangerous.”

The professor wants more traditional, environmentally friendly methods — such as scaring or trapping and eating birds — to be employed to contain the quelea.

Chemical spraying, he feels, offers only an easy way out. The alternatives, however, are seen as costly and time consuming.

Mr Onyango, who oversees the Kisumu spraying operation, says the correct procedures have been followed and approved by the national environmental management authority.

“We can’t be careless enough to make something that has a negative environmental impact,” he adds.

Collins Marangu, Director of Crop Protection Services, acknowledges that killing the birds is undesirable but says it is necessary.

“What we’re doing is precision agriculture,” he says.

“We spray the roosts at night, right where the birds are. After that, we collect and burn them.” Two of the three perches have been sprayed.

But whatever method is used, the farmers concerned have come too late with the control measures as part of the harvest has already been consumed. Crop yields have fallen by more than half.

Those near Kisumu say the quelea are still causing a problem.

Rice farmer Rose Nekesa is preparing for the worst. She had hoped to harvest at least 50 bags of rice during the season. Now, she expects to collect just 30.

“We just want the government to take these birds away,” she says in despair.



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