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Quelea birds swarm rice scheme

Saturday February 9 2019

Patrick Wamugunda, is among farmers who have come up with innovative ways to scare away the birds wrecking havoc in the rice paddies in Mwea.

Patrick Wamugunda, is among farmers who have come up with innovative ways to scare away the birds wrecking havoc in their rice paddies in Mwea. The farmers are worried that the ravenous birds, which are in their thousands, may end up destroying their entire crop if measures are not taken to curb them. PHOTO | CAROLINE WAMBUI | NMG 

CAROLINE WAMBUI
By CAROLINE WAMBUI
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Rice farmers in Mwea, Kirinyaga County, are counting losses after thousands of quelea birds descended on their crop.

The voracious tiny bird, which measures about 12cm in length and weighs 15-26g, is known to cause a lot of havoc.

The bird that normally appears on robust wheat, rice and sorghum plantations can consume an average of 10g of grain a day.

In the Mwea Irrigation Scheme, farmers are staring at an average destruction of 72,000kg of rice per day, according to area MP Kabinga Wachira Wathayu, who is working with growers to control the menace.

Patrick Wamugunda, a rice farmer, says that the government assisted in curbing the quelea menace in the main season, where planting is done in July and August and harvesting starts from November and December.

The current season called ratoon comes after the main crop has been harvested. The ratoon (new shoot) is then allowed to grow after the main harvest because there is no enough water to allow another crop to develop right from the seedling to maturity.

“In the main season, an acre offers up to 30 bags and around 20 bags from the ratoon crop,” Wamugunda explains, adding that the ratoon crop offers additional income in the dry January and February.

Farmers have been using rudimentary technologies to curb the birds, which include mounting scare crows in the fields. Others turned to catapults and slings.

Most of the farmers visit the fields early morning when the crop is most vulnerable and use stones to chase the birds away. It is an energy sapping exercise that yields little results.

Interestingly, the diurnal birds seem to have changed tactics, getting on the farms as early as 5am or late evening after hiding in swamps or in reeds making it hard for anyone to track them.

LARGE NUMBER OF THE BIRDS

“We reported to the county government but officers were unhelpful. It is even worse as some officers have turned out to be reluctant arguing that this being a ratoon crop, it’s of no much consequence, yet rice is our only source of income,” Irene Wambura, a rice farmer says, adding that in the main season, the government sprayed the birds’ breeding ground making them fly away.

Farmers have been worried that the ravenous birds, which are in their thousands, may end up destroying their entire crop if measures are not taken to curb them.

Innocent Ariemba, the National Irrigation Board scheme manager, Mwea, says the number of the birds is quite huge this time round, estimating it at over 10 million.

“We engaged the county government and the Ministry of Agriculture at the national level. There is always a multi-agency team that does the scouting to identify where the birds roost after feeding. There are various methods of control, but when the number is enormous, a plane is used to spray at night. There is already a plane at Masinga ready to do the task.”

David Mwangi, the head of plant protection services in the State Department for Crop Development in the Ministry of Agriculture, says that a team is in the field to map and identify where the birds roost.

“We have identified the major sites and currently we are working on the logistics of aerial control. We have started to spray the birds and we will do the exercise for one week.”

Globally, rice is one of the most important food crops in fight against hunger as nearly half of the world’s population depend on it.

Mwea rice scheme covers 22,000 acres and is the largest in the country, accounting for 80 per cent of Kenya’s rice production.

Last year, production hit 105,000 metric tonnes up from 85,000 metric tonnes. The increase in production has contributed to the high number of quelea birds.