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Access Type

Open Access Thesis

Document Type


Degree Program

Environmental Conservation

Degree Type

Master of Science (M.S.)

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded



Global agricultural intensification has caused large-scale wildlife declines, but agricultural lands that maintain natural habitats can support healthy wildlife populations and receive significant ecosystem services from these natural communities. However, how on-farm biodiversity results in beneficial ecosystem services is highly variable and is reported to differ among taxa and guilds. One group that has attracted attention for their potential beneficial role in reducing pest abundance are birds. Understanding the role of bird communities and individual species in pest control could be important for managing farms under a low intensity agroecological framework. In New England, farmers are increasingly applying low intensity agricultural practices, and these low intensity farms have high conservation value for bird communities. The value of bird communities to on-farm productivity, however, remains poorly understood. Therefore, we quantified the amount of insect pest control provided by birds to three important crops to New England farmers: brassicas (e.g., kale, broccoli), cucurbits (e.g., squash, cucumber), and Solanaceae (e.g., eggplant, potato). We also examined the role of different songbird species in the provision of pest control in this system.

To determine the amount of pest control services provided by birds in this system, we conducted an exclusion experiment at nine low intensity farms in Franklin and Hampshire counties of Massachusetts. Birds were excluded from crops, and pest abundance and leaf damage were compared between exclusion plots and immediately adjacent control plots. In brassica crops, the abundance of imported cabbageworm (Pieris rapae) and diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) were significantly reduced, while cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni) was not significantly affected. In cucurbit crops, all life stages of squash bugs (Anasa tristis) were significantly reduced, though striped cucumber beetle (Acalymma vittatum) populations were not significantly changed. In Solanaceous crops, bird presence caused significantly larger populations of Colorado potato beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) larvae, while the other life stages of Colorado potato beetle and aphids (superfamily Aphidoidea) were not significantly affected. Leaf damage was reduced by bird presence in all three crop types, though this effect was only significant for cucurbits. The varied effects of bird predation in different crop types highlights the need for crop-specific knowledge in applying agroecological pest management in New England.

To determine the roles of different bird species in insect pest control, bird diets were studied at 11 low intensity farms in western Massachusetts. DNA metabarcoding was used to determine the frequency of crop pests and pest natural enemies in fecal samples collected from birds on each farm. We found evidence of pest species being consumed in 12.6% of the 737 total fecal samples collected, while pest natural enemies were present in 2.0% of samples. Among bird species, Gray Catbirds and Common Yellowthroats were determined to feed on crop pests significantly more frequently than Song Sparrows, while no bird species effect was found for natural enemy frequency. The only crop pest surveyed in our exclosure experiment which was present in fecal samples was Colorado potato beetle. Though birds preyed on Colorado potato beetle, they also preyed on two known predators of Colorado potato beetle eggs and larvae: Chrysopa oculata and Chrysoperla rufilabris. This provides evidence that the increase in Colorado potato beetle larvae we observed when birds were present was due to ecological release.

Combined, our results show that birds provide important, though variable, insect pest control services on low intensity New England farms. Bird predation had primarily beneficial impacts on crops, suppressing abundance of several pest species and decreasing or minimally affecting leaf damage. The effects of bird predation on pest abundance and damage can be integrated into farm management to control insect pests without reliance on expensive, and sometimes damaging, outside inputs like pesticides. Promotion of woody, non-crop habitats on farms can promote species like Gray Catbirds and Common Yellowthroats that feed more frequently on insect pests. Management of New England farmlands for bird pest control may support healthy bird communities and improve agricultural output.


First Advisor

David King

Second Advisor

Joseph Elkinton

Third Advisor

Jeremy Andersen

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.