When your job involves thinking of a new topic for a newspaper column every single week of the year, your ears perk up when an intriguing phrase floats by. And you can’t get much more intriguing than “laser scarecrows for New Hampshire farmers.”

I hit the phones when I saw that in an N.H. Agriculture Department newsletter. My visions of a Transformer robot patrolling corn fields to zap hungry birds soon faded, but were replaced by a technology that is more humane, much cheaper and, most importantly, actually exists.

“When you are dealing with multiple bird problems through the whole growing season you are looking for any tool possible,” said John Moulton of Moulton Farm in Meredith, the first farm in the state to install one of these scarecrows, made by researchers at the University of Rhode Island. “We’re reasonably certain it helped (last year) … but we want another season under our belt before we’re sure.”

This scarecrow doesn’t look anything like Ray Bolger in “Wizard of Oz.” It’s more like a 5-gallon bucket atop a pole with a battery attached.

The bucket holds a variety of electronic equipment feeding a small green laser (532 nanometers) that pivots and fires a beam in random directions, which frightens away – not zaps – certain species of birds. No critters are harmed in the preservation of these foodstuffs!

Judging from a series of tests in fields and indoors in Rhode Island and at Moulton Farm, it scares away a variety of blackbirds and crows from fields of sweet corn over a radius of scores of meters, although it was less successful with catbirds. It might also work against Canada geese.

It doesn’t work on my garden’s nemesis, however: deer, groundhogs and other four-legged pests.

“Mammals that eat crops, many rely much more heavily on sound and scent to watch for predators. You start flashing a laser beam around, either they don’t see it or it doesn’t mean anything to them,” said Dr. Rebecca Nelson Brown, a professor of plant sciences at URI who has led the team developing the project over a half-dozen years.

Lasers to frighten away birds have been around for a while at airports and large commercial farms but they’re too big and expensive to be practical for New England’s small farms.

“People for whom the URI design is meant are protecting one to five acres at a time, usually closer to one,” Brown said.

The model costs $800 and is DIY friendly, as long as you’re better with a soldering iron and toolbox than I am.

Another advantage: It won’t annoy neighbors like the other main bird-scaring technology used on farms, the loud and obnoxious propane cannon.

And now it’s time for a climate-change discussion, obligatory in any modern agriculture article.

Changes in rainfall and temperature and increased storm severity all over the globe are putting a real strain on the large-scale agriculture we take for granted. The idea of locally grown food in New Hampshire’s rock-strewn fields used to be kind of cute but increasingly it looks like an important part of making us more resilient.

We’ll never feed ourselves in New England but we can take the edge off coming uncertainty in the global food supply, both financially and nutritionally. If laser scarecrows help us do that, more power to them!

To learn more, do a web search for “URI Laser Scarecrow Project” or email Dr. Brown at brownreb@uri.edu.

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