Why Grassland Birds And Habitats Are In Peril
We always hear about the colorful neotropical migratory birds, the warblers, and how much their populations are declining. The scary part is that grassland birds, the little brown jobs, are declining significantly more rapidly than the warblers. A few of these species are neotropical migrants themselves, spending our winter in warmer insect filled environs to our south. Breeding Bird Surveys conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service show all too plainly the precipitous drops in populations of these species. Eastern Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and others have declined by more than 2% per year since 1966. That translates to populations of these species being much less than 50% of what they were in 1966.
How many pastures do you remember from your youth that are now housing developments, shopping centers or parking lots. How many agricultural fields have been similarly lost to “progress.” Habitat loss on the breeding ground is a big part of the problem. Even more insidious are the changes in agricultural practices that have occurred over the last few decades. Earlier cutting of hay fields along with repeated cutting of the same fields during the growing season create a no-win situation for grassland nesting species. Many of the sparrows and blackbirds that rely on grasslands for breeding require 2 weeks to construct a nest, another 2-3 weeks for the eggs to hatch and again 2-3 weeks for the young to fledge and be mobile and independent enough to move out of the area. Cutting hayfields in late June, again in July and again in August doesn’t allow nearly enough time for these breeders to be successful.
This practice of repeated cutting of fields also depletes the soil of precious nitrogen. Increased costs from having to fertilize these fields every year can hardly be an incentive to tax the land this hard. It is very disappointing to see rows of hay bails sitting in a field year after year, rotting back into the ground. In years past fields were allowed to lay fallow for a season or two in order to recharge the nutrients in the soil. This also greatly benefited wildlife and our grassland nesting birds.
Many feel that these birds can nest in the fence rows and rock breaks of these fields. Studies have shown that these restricted areas, many oriented in long continuous lines, are more effectively patrolled and hunted by predators such as the Red Fox. This increased pressure from predation is just as deadly to breeding birds as the cutting of the field. There has also been a recent trend in clear cutting fence rows leaving pristine barren fences with no life.
In an effort to visualize these effects, a large grassy area within Steamboat Run near Shepherdstown has been under new management. Instead of cutting the entire area every year the plot has been divided into sections that are cut on a rotating schedule. These areas are cut late in the season and only once during a year. Some areas remain un-mowed for a couple of seasons. The results are nothing short miraculous. Numbers of birds have increased to levels that were never seen with the previous cutting scheme.
Other wildlife has also benefited as the sightings of turtles, snakes, dragonflies, butterflies and more are also increasing. This small study has made it dramatically clear that, with a little planning and effort, we can heal the land and bring back the wildlife that we all appreciate.
Perhaps the most sound solution would be to cut hay and alfalfa fields once a year or less and late in the season in those fields that aren’t being used for feed production. Not only will this allow the land to replenish itself but, it will greatly benefit our grassland nesting birds and other wildlife. It will save our water ways from fertilizer runoff and eutrophication and create wonderful areas for wildlife and exploration.
The Grassland Birds Initiative will focus on contacting landowner with the intent to educate and coordinate with them to promote sounds harvesting practices. Fields that are being cut to generate feed for livestock would be excluded from the project. Fields that are cut and bailed without an immediate need will hopefully be added to the program. We would recommend that these fields be cut on a rotational basis, or cut only late in the season, to avoid the grassland bird nesting and fledging phase (early May through late July). Cutting in mid-September or October would be ideal.
With the cooperation of landowners and coordination through the Grassland Birds Initiative, we could significantly increase the breeding populations of our grassland birds, heal the land, and restore patches of functional ecosystems within our area. This would also lead to expanded opportunities for naturalists within our area to explore and learn about grasslands and grassland birds