Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Nut Predator Warning

An urgent note to all hazel growers- we're seeing increased nut theft this year, and it's accelerating.

We're talking about rodents and birds, primarily.  In all years, there will be "theft"; but this year it seems to be exceptional to us.  The nuts are disappearing.

In our experience, less experienced hazel growers tend to see hazel bushes with few nuts, and assume the bush simply never had many.  Often this is not the case- predators remove them; and very stealthily, so the gradual loss is not noticed.

As a reminder; one of the papers I submitted for my Masters was an original piece of Ethology; a summer long field study of Black Tern social behavior- I basically minored in Animal Behavior, and am a trained observer.

Which has turned out critically important on several occasions; in one, it took us weeks to discover that bluejays had deciphered our plant marking process- and were using it to harvest the best nuts, and best plants, before we actually got to them.  Sounds hard to believe; but we proved it.  Amateur observers would not have noticed the jays' behavior- it was silent, (very unlike jays) concentrated (25 jays in a flock) and limited to very early morning hours only- when humans were not in the field, because of heavy dew.

A couple of years later, our local crows started behaving similarly; though they did not need pre-marked plants; and their restriction on time in the field was even more acute- they started specifically at sunrise, and left the fields before any humans were (normally) out of bed.  I discovered this by following the rules of animal behavior research- get out and watch, until you find out- all night if necessary.

We teach numerous ways to intercept nut thieves in our Short Course; but the #1 tool is "Be Aware!" - and take action of some kind; most effectively quick harvest.  The nuts can disappear rapidly once the thieves get focused.

We think this year is exceptional because of the drought.  Corn usually abundantly available to crows is far less available, and often of poor quality- the animals are hungry, and the hazels may represent the only easy food source available for miles.

This photo was taken by Brandon, one morning a few days ago.  If Blogger is working right, you should be able to click on it and get access to the full file size.  If you zoom in- the crows become visible.

This photo is a "blow up" of the previous one, doctored with editing software to bump up contrast and sharpness; so the crows can be seen.  If you do the same to the rest of the photo- there are about 30 in this one snippet, about 100 crows in the entire picture when you count; Brandon estimated only 60...

They only flew and revealed themselves when Brandon responded to 2 watch crows, and "chased them".  Two calling crows turned into a flock of 100 hiding birds.  .

REALIZE- YOUR CROWS KNOW YOU.  They watch you.  Do you hear a crow cawing a minute or so after you step outside?  That's the "watchman", telling the others you're moving.  No, I'm not making this up, or delusional- crows are extraordinarily intelligent, as researchers have finally been documenting in the past few years.

That's one of the few good points to crows- ours know for a fact that we will shoot them if we have the least chance.  They also know we go to great lengths to sneak up on them (not easy).  When sufficiently harassed, the flock will usually decide other food is less dangerous, and quit (for a while).  They'll be back, though

We have not succeeded in training bluejays to stay away- and they become very quiet and fly furtively when stealing nuts- if you're not looking for them, you will not see them.  We have slowed them down with various techniques, and we no longer mark bushes- for them.

BE AWARE.  This is a tough year; the theft can be extensive.


  1. Sounds like competition for available resources in the most direct way possible.

    I suspect that, in a woody agriculture environment where we set up a living ecosystem, we will always be competing with animals. For the most part, I think that people aren't even aware of it.

    If we snooze, we lose!

  2. Eric-"I suspect that, in a woody agriculture environment where we set up a living ecosystem, we will always be competing with animals"-

    Oh, I guarantee it! It's a basic part of the premise. Hence our reliance on "raptor roost" poles to keep mouse/rodent numbers down; from the early days. Or down-ish, anyway.

    One thing to keep in mind; our records of nuts harvested are always "real world" number- what we actually picked, AFTER the mice, bluejays, and whatever. We know for a fact if you're snoozing- you can indeed lose everything. Woody agriculture is not a "hands-off" practice- some tweaking is always needed to nudge factors in our favor. We just don't demand absolutes.

  3. A couple of notes from me– I had never suspected there of being more than about 30 crows working our fields at a time. This was an exceptional experience for me– on the morning of the first time I was out on dawn crow patrol in the season (later than it should have been). I was a bit impatient and shot at a couple of crows in the early fly-over behavior which sometimes comes before settling down and eating. Not having been shot at since the year before, they were less wary than usual and apparently very surprised. But they knew who I was and where I lived (even though it was in a different place than last year). I suspect that a large portion of the local community, including those that usually go to other farmsteads and fields even during hazel season (which does happen), came by to verify the renewed threat; since there really wasn't much to eat in the field they were all waiting in. Kinda spooky.

    Since that day they've been reduced in our fields, but I think there have been a couple of mornings where they were taking the risk anyway. Unverified, since I've only actually been out once since then. Seems to be moderately effective since we've spooked them before, but the first year I personally was convincing them of my ability to be a danger it took a week or more of dawn patrol, sneaking around to be able to pop out from the bushes and shoot at them surprisingly in any field on the farm.