In 2006, an E.coli outbreak devastated the spinach industry and farmers were pressured to remove natural habitat to keep wildlife and the foodborne pathogens they can sometimes carry away from crops. But a new report from UC Davis indicates farms with surrounding natural habitat experience the most benefits from birds, including less crop damage and lower food safety risks. 

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, found that birds were more likely to carry pathogens and eat berries without surrounding natural habitat. Conducted at 21 strawberry fields along California’s Central Coast, the study looked at how different farming practices influenced the costs and benefits that wild birds provided on strawberry farms. 

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The scientists combined nearly 300 bird surveys and the molecular analyses of more than 1,000 fecal samples from 55 bird species to determine which birds ate pests, beneficial insects and crops, as well as those carrying foodborne pathogens. Analysts also ranked birds to see which were more likely to bring benefits or costs to farmlands. 

The study is one of several publications from UC Davis Professor Daniel Karp’s lab highlighting the environmental, agricultural and food safety impacts of bird habitat around farms. A related study in 2020 found farms with natural habitat attracted more insect-eating birds — and fewer strawberry-eating birds — so that farmers experience less berry damage on farms with more habitat nearby. Such habitats also bring greater numbers of bird species to the landscape. 

“All together, these studies suggest that farming landscapes with natural habitat tend to be good for conservation, farmers, and public health,” Karp said.

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