A casualty of research

By Vicki Hyatt | Jun 05, 2014

The dead geese spotted in a field off County Road just past the Lake Junaluska dam could be considered a tragedy by some, a casualty of agriculture research by others.

The 3-acre field is being used to conduct a corn test by the Mountain Research Station, a unit of the N.C. Department of Agriculture. Station Superintendent Kaleb Rathbone said 40 to 50 varieties of corn were seeded in small plots in the field to see which varieties were most resistant to gray leaf spot, a disease that causes corn stalks to prematurely brown, shrivel and not produce.

"It's almost like a blight that hits the corn foliage," he said. "Genetics is the best way to control it. This test is to evaluate new lines being developed with that will be resistant to it."

The varieties would not be genetically modified, but cross-pollinated, much like what was done with maize by the first Americans — the native Indians — who saved the seed from the largest, strongest plants to continue improving the crops.

Birds and geese were interfering with the test, Rathbone said, so the project leader used the repellent Avitrol to control the population.

While the chemical is intended to scare most of the bird population away, a few die after consuming bait that contains Avitrol, he said.

"With crows, it will make them almost drunk and they will leave," he said. "With geese, it does the same thing, but it will get a few."

On Tuesday, three dead geese could be seen across the field, and Rathbone said several dead geese had been removed earlier in the week.

The company website said Avitrol is used as a chemical frightening agent to remove pest birds from a given location. It is applied as a chemically treated grain bait that acts on the central nervous system and the motor nervous system.

Birds eating the treated bait will be affected in a manner that, varying by species, will artificially cause them to emit distress and alarm cries and visual displays used by their species when they are frightened or injured. This will frighten the flock and cause it to leave the site.

Laboratory tests show if the dose is lethal, death will usually occur within an hour. If the dose is sub-lethal, there will be a recovery period, which may be as short as four to five hours. Surviving birds have no lasting effects from Avitrol.

"By limiting the amount of bait available to relatively few birds, the remainder of the flock can be frightened away from most sites with a minimum of mortality," the website states.