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Okanagan fruit growers, governments to keep killing starlings

Thousands of starlings, amassing before migrating south, fly in swarms above the fields, and Highway 55 that leads into Niagara-on-the-Lake, and wine country. Local governments in the Okanagan Valley are continuing to target the birds in an effort to protect the region’s orchards.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Tens of thousands of starlings will be killed annually across the Okanagan for at least another three years, an effort to crack down on the "blight" that threatens the region's orchards.

Local governments throughout the valley this week are renewing financial support for a control program that began a decade ago.

The latest to sign up was the District of Lake Country, where council this week approved a budget request of $1,600.

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"The birds are a blight on agriculture, and given that Lake Country is over 40 per cent farming, this just seems like a no-brainer way to support our orchardists," Councillor Lisa Cameron said.

A total of $115,000 is spent each year to trap and gas starlings across the Okanagan, with an estimated 60,000 of the birds killed each year. Most of the money comes from taxpayers through regional districts, but funding is also provided by the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association, the Okanagan Kootenay Cherry Growers' Association, and the B.C. Grapegrowers Association. Starlings are estimated to cause $4-million in damages annually to Okanagan vineyards and orchards.

Most trapping operations are conducted near feedlots and other cattle operations, where large flocks of starlings gather.

Starlings were introduced to North America in 1890 by a group of New Yorkers who wanted to establish on this continent all the bird species ever mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. The birds first showed up in the Okanagan in the 1950s.

"This species is now firmly established across the entire continent and are one of the most common and widespread birds in North America. Starlings are listed on the World Conservation Union's list of the 100 worst invasive species," reads part of the control program's website.

In addition to eating and damaging fruit, starlings spread disease and drive native songbirds from their territory.

"We're not going to eliminate starlings, that's never going to happen," control program manager Connie Bielert has said.

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"The goal is to control them to the point where they don't cause these huge problems for agriculture like they've done in the past."

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