Grassland-nesting bird populations continue to decline in numbers in Vermont, according to recent surveys conducted by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VTF&W) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bird species that nest in grasslands include vesper sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, and eastern meadowlarks, among others. The birds nest in hayfields or cow pastures, and are threatened by changes in agricultural and land use practices, according to biologist John Buck of VTF&W.
“Grassland birds face unique conservation challenges in Vermont because the remaining habitat they depend on is now largely landowner-maintained agricultural hayfields,” said Buck. “As a result, conservationists have been working closely with farmers and landowners to attempt to provide appropriate habitat for these species.”
The history of grassland bird nesting over the past two centuries follows closely with changes in agricultural practices in North America. When Eastern forests were converted into pasture for sheep and cows, grassland birds began nesting in these newly created grassland habitats. As natural prairies in the Midwestern and Western states and provinces were plowed under to make way for corn and soy crops in the 20th century, nesting grounds for these bird species were lost. Additionally, as Eastern pastures began once again reverting to forests, this further reduced grassland bird habitat continent-wide and contributed to the birds’ decline.
“Vermont’s remaining grassland habitat is mowed earlier and more frequently, and now occurs at the same time grassland species are in the height of their nesting season,” said Buck. “At the same time, old fields are being replaced with residential and commercial developments.”
According to Buck, landowners who mow their fields for aesthetic reasons can maintain these fields and accommodate the nesting birds simply by cutting later in the summer. He recommends an Aug. 1 start date.
Farmers and others who wish to share space with the grassland birds can do so through the Bobolink Project, which uses donated funds to provide financial assistance to participating farmers who modify their mowing schedules so that nesting grassland birds can successfully raise their young. This year, the project worked with 17 farmers to protect more than 600 acres of grassland habitat.
Photo courtesy Vermont Fish & Wildlife
Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist John Buck surveys for grassland birds at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area.