The chattering of red billed quelea birds in Mwea, Kirinyaga County or in Narok often throws rice and wheat farmers in a state of panic as the ravenous birds normally attack their crops.
The populous birds often appear in their thousands and invade farms, leaving farmers helpless.
In Mwea, rice at the scheme is normally planted in July and August and harvested from November to December to fetch a maximum of 30 bags per acre.
The ratoon crop (new sprout), on the other hand, fetches some 20 bags from an acre.
Shadrack Muya, an ecologist and the dean school of biological sciences, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, says that the birds don’t just move, they first scatter in small groups, search for crops to attack like wheat and rice and return to share their findings.
“The finding with adequate feeds is considered as the birds only purpose is to invade a region where they are sure to get adequate feeds with ease as they cannot spend more energy flying and acquire less,” he explains.
He adds that the birds also rely on memory, where if in the last season the region they had invaded had surplus food, then they will return.
The camouflaging aspects of the birds also make it hard for farmers to predict where next they are likely to invade.
“Their large food reservoirs favour their feeding by allowing for maximum storage of seeds, which are digested later when they are resting. Frequent disturbances may compel the birds to take a larger fill,” he says.
TRAP THE BIRDS
Quelea birds breed three times a year, with each offering an average of three eggs making their populations robust.
Control include large-scale use of chemicals by governments where the birds are sprayed at night after their roosting places have been identified.
David Mugambi, a lecturer at Chuka University and an expert in natural resource management, explains that use of chemicals has a long-term residue effect with the level of toxicity increasing along the food chain. He advocates for integrated biological and mechanical approaches.
“But the thing is, if you can’t beat them, eat them. A mechanism should be established to trap the birds and put them into some economic use as they are a rich source of protein thus helping address the question of food insecurity as it’s done in other countries like Tanzania,” he says.
At Mwea rice scheme, farmers like Catherine Muriithi and Irene Wangui employ traditional methods that include using slings with stones, catapults, scarecrows and noise making to scare the birds.
Rice and wheat are prone to destruction right from the tender milk stage, all the way to maturation with immense destruction taking place in the dry season.
“The birds attack the fields as early as 5am, hiding in the day as they take refuge from the heat and predators in the nearby swamps only to reappear in the evening to attack again before going to roost,” she says.
Mwea rice scheme covers 22,000 acres and accounts for 80 per cent of Kenya’s rice production.