Rice farmers from Kenya fight quail birds in Kisumu

an animal with a red bill

Large swarms of the ravenous red-billed quelea bird have encroached on Rose Nekesa's rice field in western Kenya.

She is one of thousands of farmers who live close to Kisumu, a lakeside city, who are concerned about having their worst harvest in five years.

I shout nonstop to scare the birds away, but I'm losing my voice. She tells the BBC while holding a massive lump of mud and a stick in one hand. "These birds are not afraid of anything," she says.

They have grown accustomed to us and everything we do to them. ".

She throws mud at the birds to scare them away from her crop. As more swarms approach, she can frequently run across her paddy field thanks to her small, wiry frame.

"I can work alone when there are no birds. I now require at least four employees to help me. It's very pricey. We are appealing to the government to take action. The only source of income we have is from this rice. ".

Farmer chasing the birds
With a stick in one hand and mud in the other, Rose Nekesa tries to scare the birds away.

The world's most numerous wild bird species are also at the mercy of Lawrence Odanga, another small-scale farmer.

"They are audible. In his native Dholuo, he yells, "They are coming to destroy us.

Chasing the birds away is a task that cannot be accomplished, not even by the five people he has hired to guard every acre of his crop.

Bird traps, scarecrows, and the sporadic blasting of vuvuzelas have all failed to work.

"My farm's four acres have almost entirely been destroyed by birds. I won't make any money. How will I transport my kids to school?

In East and Southern Africa, queleas—also known as "feathered locusts"—are regarded as pests.

Approximately 10g (0.13 oz) of grain can be consumed daily by an average quelea bird. Although it's not a lot, the flocks, which can number in the millions, can consume up to 20 tonnes of grain in a single day.

The FAO of the UN estimated in 2021 that crops worth $50 million (£41 million) were lost to birds every year, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa.

300 acres of rice fields have already been destroyed by the most recent quelea invasion in Kisumu, which involved about 10 million birds. Another 2,000 acres are still in danger during harvest season, according to the county government.

Other regions of the nation have suffered more damage. Numerous flocks of the birds attacked wheat farms in the southern part of Narok County, decimating an estimated 40% of the crop.

According to some Kenyan scientists, the long-lasting drought in the Horn of Africa, which has resulted in fewer seeds from wild grasses, a key source of food for queleas, may be to blame for the birds' invasion of cultivated land as they search for another food source.

But according to Paul Gacheru of the environmental group Nature Kenya, the main cause is not the drought brought on by climate change.

He blames changes in land use, saying that "intensive farming and settlement mean that we are losing space for natural vegetation to grow. The quelea species have adjusted to the current use of the land.

Given that their super-nomadic populations have a larger source of food due to increased cereal crop production across Africa, quelea populations may have also increased.

In addition to this, the birds reproduce quickly, producing up to nine chicks three times a year, resulting in a massive population boom.

The authorities have turned to a mass cull through chemical spraying because mud, sticks, and vuvuzelas have failed to protect the crops.

Drone in the night sky
Spraying the roosting areas is done with drones.

According to estimates, the Kenyan government killed eight million quelea in 2019 after they invaded the Mwea Irrigation Scheme, the biggest rice-growing project in the nation.

Similar to last year, another two million people perished at Mwea.

Aerial control operations in Kisumu were started this year with the intention of killing at least six million birds. The pesticide fenthion is applied by drones to the birds' resting and breeding areas known as roosts.

Ken Onyango, Kisumu County's agricultural director, claimed that chemical spraying was the only way to save the rice fields that were in danger.

Other species besides the one it is intended to kill are extremely toxic to fenthion. Environmental scientists and animal rights activists are thus cautioning the public that the spraying will have negative effects on the ecosystem, other plant and animal species, as well as human health.

Raphael Kapiyo, a Maseno University professor of environment and earth science, claims that the question is "how do you plan to coexist with the birds? Because you can't kill everything, so that human beings remain.".

More importantly, we claim that it is extremely risky to try to control birds with chemicals. ".

In order to contain the quelea, the professor prefers to use more conventional, environmentally friendly techniques, such as frightening or trapping the birds and eating them.

He believes that chemical spraying only provides a simple solution. The alternatives, however, are thought to be costly and time-consuming.

According to Mr. Onyango, who is in charge of the Kisumu spraying operation, the proper steps were taken and approved by the National Environment Management Authority.

He continues, "We cannot be so careless to engage in any activity that has any negative environmental impact.".

Although killing the birds is not ideal, according to Collins Marangu, director of crop protection services, it is necessary.

Precision agriculture is what we're doing, he claims.

"We spray the bird roosting areas at night, when they are most active. We then collect them and burn them. "Spray has been applied to two of the three roosts.

Nevertheless, whichever method is employed, the control measures have arrived too late for the affected farmers as some of the crop has already been consumed. More than half less has been harvested.

The queleas, according to those living close to Kisumu, are still a problem.

Rose Nekesa, a rice farmer, anticipates the worst. She had hoped to gather at least 50 bags of rice throughout the season. She now anticipates only 30 people.

Desperately, she says, "We just want the government to take these birds away."

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