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Volkswagen Settlement Money Is Advancing URI Research Into ‘Laser Scarecrows’

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Birds can be a big problem for farmers in the state because they eat and damage crops, such as sweet corn.

For two years, Rebecca Brown, associate professor of plant sciences at URI, has been working with farmers in Southeastern New England to develop and test a device they call a “laser scarecrow.”

It resembles a plastic, five-gallon bucket on top of a pole and works by shining a green laser beam on top of the corn. The laser moves in a circle covering about a 300-foot radius, which is about nine acres of a square field.

Brown said birds are sensitive to moving or flashing lights, so the laser beam scares them away, and it's been very effective so far.

"The fields where they are used to having 75 to 85 percent damage, they’re seeing less than 10 percent," Brown said.

Brown said this technology has been used at airports and industrial sites for more than two decades, but it hasn't been used in agriculture to keep birds off of annual crops.

Farmers have been using loud propane cannons to deter birds.

Brown said the noise has been bothering the surrounding neighborhoods, but that could change with the "laser scarecrow."

"What’s really nice is they seem to be more effective than the propane cannons," she said.

Brown and her team plan to use the $50,000 grant to test the laser prototype this winter to keep Canada geese off of sod farms and fields with “cover crops” meant to retain soil and water quality.

The grant, announced by Rhode Island's Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, is a part of a 2016 federal Volkswagen settlement over diesel-engine air pollution.

The $4.1 million in settlement funds are going toward a variety of environmental projects across the state. 


Crows and starlings fly over a farm in the United Kingdom. Starlings are major pests on some farms in Southeastern New England and can cause 75-80 percent damage to sweet corm crops in about 24 hours, according to URI professor Rebecca Brown.
Crows and starlings fly over a farm in the United Kingdom. Starlings are major pests on some farms in Southeastern New England and can cause 75-80 percent damage to sweet corm crops in about 24 hours, according to URI professor Rebecca Brown.
Ruth Sharville / Wikimedia Commons