URI researcher develops laser scarecrow to help reduce birds eating farm crop

URI Professor Rebecca Brown checks out her operation of a laser scarecrow being tested in a cornfield at the URI Agronomy Farm

By News Staff

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KINGSTON, R.I (WLNE) – A University of Rhode Island researcher has created what she calls a “laser scarecrow”, and it has a high rate of success at scaring birds from cornfields after being tested at numerous farm fields around the state. 

Farmers have had long-running battles to keep birds off their crop, using propane cannons, visual deterrents, and even shotguns, but not succeed for long.

“Birds, especially starlings and red-winged blackbirds, are a major pest of sweet corn,” said URI Professor of plant sciences, Rebecca Brown. “They rip up the husks, peck at the kernels, and make the ears unmarketable. Despite all the approaches the farmers have used to keep the birds away, it’s not uncommon for them to lose as much as 75 percent of their crop. And it all happens within about 48 hours of harvest.” 

The issue with propane cannons is that they are quite loud and can create conflict between farmers and their neighbors.

“The laser scarecrow has the advantage that they’re relatively simple to set up, and the neighbors don’t even notice them because they’re completely silent and the beam isn’t visible to humans in the sunlight,” Brown said. 

Lasers have been used for bird control for many years, but mostly in indoor or partially enclosed settings such as sports stadiums of warehouses. 

The devices developed for those applications were not initially adapted for farm field use. 

“In the past five years or so, several things came together to make the technology possible,” said Brown. “LED-based lasers have become much less expensive, they can now be run off batteries that are more powerful and less expensive, and solar panels are available to charge the batteries off the grid. We’ve been able to capitalize on all those developments.”

The laser scarecrow is housed in a five-gallon bucket to protect any electronic components from the elements, and it can be raised on a pole to the height of corn tassels.

Since birds are especially sensitive to green lighting, a green laser light will automatically move back and forth across the tassels in a field as large as 600-feet across, scaring off birds before they can reach the corn. 

Brown tested the device, as well as two commercially available lasers made for other bird control applications, for three years at the URI agricultural fields, as well as farms in Exeter, Little Compton, Warwick, Charlestown, and Cranston. 

Brown says the device works especially well if there are other sources of food nearby, and they are “trying to make the corn less desirable.” 

Brown has sold several of her laser scarecrows for $500 to those she calls “early adopters” before the device becomes commercialized. 

“The commercial growers who are trying it are mostly enthusiastic,” said Brown. “This has been a tough year because bird pressure has been really heavy for some reason. So we didn’t get complete control of all the birds. But overall, no one has called me to say the laser was a waste of their $500. ” 

Brown added, it’s probably going to turn out that it’s best deployed as part of a multi-tool approach to bird control, but it definitely seems to be reducing bird damage.” 

Once Brown can prove there is a demand among corn growers for her scarecrow, she is hoping to find a company interested in marketing and manufacturing the device beyond the local area. 

©WLNE-TV/ABC6 2019