Making money chasing birds

HANAMA‘ULU — His voice echoed through the quiet morning air, punctuated by the hollow clonk-clonk-clonk in the distance.

The words that uttered from his lips were incomprehensible, but Art Gabriel said, “He’s talking about if the bosses were here …”

Gabriel oversees a corp of people familiar to motorists who drive by young fields of corn around the island.

“He understands Ilocano and can relate to what they do and say,” said Laurie Goodwin, the Hawai‘i Outreach Manager for Syngenta Seeds. “I tried to do his job at one time, and it’s not an easy one.”

Goodwin said Gabriel fills an important niche in the Syngenta operation. Not only does he oversee the bird chasers, he works with them, filling in as a chaser himself when the workload creates a need.

“Last week, we had 37 bird chasers out in the fields,” Gabriel said. “This week, we are working with nine.”

Goodwin said the bird chasers are a unique facet of growing things in paradise.

“We don’t have bird chasers in any other area where we grow things,” Goodwin said. “But this is one of the unique things that work in Hawai‘i.”

Cindy Goldstein, the business and community outreach manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, said they’ve experimented with other methods of keeping birds out of the seed plots, but the most effective method is having people in the field.

“We’ve tried different noises from a crying baby to wild animals. We’ve tried netting, but the most effective is having people out there,” Goldstein said.

Gabriel said Syngenta tried other methods of bird control including the use of inflated balls equipped with reflective tapes and streamers.

“The birds only laugh at us when we use the scary balloons,” Gabriel said. “We never don’t have bird chasers in new fields.”

The four industries involved in growing seed products utilize bird watchers.

Randy Yokoyama of Monsanto Hawai‘i said they have a crew of about 10 to watch fields. He added that BASF also has a corp of bird watchers, although he was not certain about how many people they employ to watch the fields.

“This practice of having bird chasers is just a better way of controlling the birds and getting better yields from plantings,” Goodwin said.

She noted that each area presents a different type of bird problem. In Hanama‘ulu, where Syngenta started planting about three years ago, the primary bird problem is the Brazilian Cardinal while on the Westside, the problems are created by pheasants.

Recently, though, Gabriel noted a different problem with green parrots than those created by the cardinals.

Instead of attacking seed and young sprouts, the parrots wait until the seed is set on mature plants before coming in to feast.

“They’re smart,” Yokoyama said. “They come in, get through the husks and eat everything, row by row. They eat an ear cleaner than a human can, and they do it fast.”

Goodwin said the problem is pretty severe in the Hanama‘ulu fields, and sometimes, depending on how big the flocks are, Gabriel will send in chasers to keep the parrots away from the fields.

“Usually, we just take the losses from the green parrots,” Goodwin said.

Bird chasers are on duty for 10-11 hours a day, seven days a week for about three weeks after seed is planted, Gabriel said.

“The birds don’t know about weekends, or holidays, and so the chasers go out seven days a week,” Goodwin said.

Robert “Bitos” Gandia, one of the Syngenta supervisors, said not everyone can be a bird chaser. He said you can tell when you have a good chaser because there’s a path where they walk in the fields they watch.

Lysander Nacnac is an example of a good bird chaser, Gabriel said. Although not named specifically by Gandia, he was the one referred to as having the ideal qualities of a good chaser.

“He walks all the time,” Gabriel said. “He doesn’t need anything because he talks as he walks. And he talks loud. The only time he’s not walking is when he stops to drink water. He just walks.”

Gabriel said Nacnac has been working for Syngenta for 12 years and his family is also employed by the company in other divisions.

“It takes a special kind of person to be a good bird chaser,” Doug Tiffany said in an earlier conversation on bird chasers. “They do a lot of walking, and they have to do it a lot.”

Goodwin said many of their bird chasers come from employees who are near retirement age and still want to do something.

Leonarda Sevellaja is a 10-year employee with Syngenta and started as a pollinator, Goodwin said. She moved on to nursery and now is out in the field as a chaser.

Goldstein said Pioneer Hi-Bred uses people who are retired from the industry, or community elders who want something to do.

Gabriel said Syngenta started recruiting in the Lihu‘e area since starting the planting in the Hanama‘ulu area, but so far has had only one person.

Since starting in the Hanama‘ulu fields, Goodwin said visitors traveling up to the Wailua Falls area are curious about the roles the bird watchers play.

“The visitors can see them in the fields with their tents and porta-potties,” Goodwin said.

That support comes from the effort put forth by the Syngenta Seeds’ agronomics department, Goodwin said.

Arthur Brun and his crew came out to Hanama‘ulu and built them a lean-to where they can all come together for lunch breaks. Additionally, Brun had to arrange for the delivery and maintenance of the porta-potties and other arrangements which add to the comfort of the walkers.

Gabriel takes used PVC ovals which provide the main source of water to the field irrigation systems and cuts the recycled material into 2-foot sections.

This forms the main weapon in the bird chaser’s arsenal. The chaser claps the pieces together, creating a staccato sound that somehow carries through the wind and echoes off the neighboring trees and hills.

“Each chaser has his own unique method for keeping the birds away,” Goldstein said. “Some wave CDs on a stick. They each have a method that works for them and we encourage them to be creative.”

Goodwin said in addition to keeping the feathered fowl under control, Syngenta gets an additional benefit from the chasers as sanitation associates.

“They pull old irrigation tape, weed and put out the rocks that were uprooted during the plowing,” Goodwin said. “They do a tremendous job of keeping the fields clean.”

Those additional chores create more work for Gabriel who patrols the fields being manned by the chasers. During these rounds, he picks up the collected waste material and makes arrangements for Agronomics to dispose of the collected refuse.

Goldstein said Pioneer Hi-Bred started using bird chasers about five years ago, the idea being born after it participated in the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life” as the Bird Chaser team.

Since then, the term has stuck and the people in the field became known as bird chasers.

“It’s just a better way of keeping the birds in check,” Goodwin said.

Yokoyama said you just can’t get a good field without the bird chasers.

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@kauaipubco.com

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