The Future of Birds and Farming

If you read the post yesterday, you might have noticed a common theme.  Habitat loss is the leading cause of grassland and farm bird decline.  In some cases it is simply the case of land reverting back to its original form (Forest), but in a lot more cases humans play a major role in how these species will or will not survive in the future.

For many species when farmers mow their fields has a huge impact on their nesting success.  If farmers try and get two cuts a year in, these species have little or no chance of successfully breeding.  So the simplest method would be to encourage farmers to mow later right?  Well sure, but there is no economic benefit to them doing this, or is there.

As I discussed in an earlier segment the early hay cut has the highest nutritional value and is highly sought after by dairy farmers to feed their cows.  Later cuts, with lower nutritional value are not in demand as much as earlier cuts and many farmers are unsure how to even market a later cut to goat, sheep and horse farmers.

In order to give grassland species a chance, farmers in the Northeast should delay cutting until at least July 15th.  Ideally, sometime in August would be better, since many of the species are double broods, but the July 15th date pretty much guarantees the fledgling of one brood.  Currently some estimates, species such as Bobolinks are suffering nearly 50% losses due to mowing in some areas, but they are also prolific breeders which means their overall populations are showing a significant, but less steep decline.

Mowing isnt’ all bad however.  Without farmers mowing their fields, it would only take a couple of season before they were no longer fields.  Freshly mowed fields often are very attractive to certain species because of the insects and rodents that get stirred up.  Hawks find it easier to hunt, species such as Horned Lark, Savannah Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow often move into mowed areas and sometimes nest as they prefer a shorter grass height.  Mowing also guarantees that the next season will be hay as well.

On a broader note, parks and wildlife refuges should do research and manage their fields accordingly, this means starting hay fields and letting them grow up to early succession, that way these places can provide habitat to a whole host of species.  When the fields are no longer fields, these places would have to start over either by controlled burning or mowing.  Mowing would be done post season (Labor Day) to allow the maximum amount of breeding opportunity.

Livestock present different problems.  Dense populations of animals keep grasslands at a minimum, but often become attractive for certain species (Horned Lark and Savannah Sparrow).  Manure spreads in winter are very attractive to Snow Buntings, Longspurs and Larks.  I have encouraged farmers to till their fields in fall and spread with manure.  Not only with nutrients be replaced into the soil, but these fields become very attractive to many different birds.  It is also a rather safe and natural way to fertilize one’s fields.  That being said, one major drawback to dairy farms is ground and runoff water pollution.  Not only can it make humans and other animals sick (in particular e-coli) but it often helps to encourage algae and bacteria which kill the native plants and animals.  This is turn can hurt ducks, geese and herons who can often be found feeding in farm ponds.

Chemicals are of course dangerous.  Pesticides and insecticides are very effective, but do not discriminate.  Pesticides were linked in to the steep and near extinction of the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, along with many other species of raptors (even Red-tailed Hawks were in decline).  Insecticides eliminate insects, but also removes a vital food source for many neo-tropical migrants.  The use of these chemicals are the leading cause of ‘green deserts’.  Rich in plant life, but devoid of anything else.  Plus the long term effects of these chemicals on humans is poorly understood.  I have a deformed ear, which has likely was caused by pesticides that were used on an Apple Orchard that was behind the house we lived in at the time.  Many farmers also come down with rare or aggressive forms of cancer, no doubt because of the handling of these chemicals.  Healthy land practices, with abundant life at all levels of the food chain, actually are more effective at protecting plants leading to higher crop yields than using chemicals.

However the best way these birds will be protected in through education.  Most farmers have no clue what birds are on their properties and it has been my experience that when you can show them the abundance of life on their land, it helps to put what they do in perspective and many take measures, no matter how small, to help keep nature healthy and active on their properties.  Environmental groups such as Audubon, cannot wait for farmers to come to them for help.  Farmers by nature are independent and a good deal stubborn, but most are willing to listen.  Environmental groups should take the offensive and take the cause directly to the farmers and land owners.  Too often these groups wait until its too late to effectively do anything.  Now I also understand that these groups have limited funds, but they need to tap effectively into their volunteers to get the job done.  It can be done, but there has to be a commitment from management to make it happen.

In many cases grassland bird species are in trouble, big trouble.  But like many issues we face in the environment today, their declines can be reversed.  But it takes a detailed understanding of the situation and the coming together of many different groups to ultimately be successful.

I hope, over the past week that you the reader have learned something about Birds and Farming.  My goal was to bring the issue of grassland birds and the struggle of farmers into the blogging world.  Hopefully one person will read this and perhaps be inspired to look into the situation in their home areas and become motivated to do something about it.  Without the concern and support of everyday people, most environmental causes would be lost.

I thank you for reading and good luck.  We are all going to need it.

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