Mission Statement

Bearing Witness to Local Natural History-- from the wildness of Indiana

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Speaking for Grassland Birds & Their Habitat

Let me speak for grassland birds. I do not profess to understand the intricacies of farming/managing land for the harvesting of hay . . . but I have been doing much reading lately to learn more about it. Perhaps we can all develop an awareness of our land. Grassland birds are declining significantly across America. Just within the last 30 years, the populations of these birds have declined 70-90%.

A grassland area in our county was home to many species of birds earlier in the summer. Dickcissels, Eastern Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows, Red-wing Blackbirds, etc. filled this area with song and life. Not long after I discovered this rich area, the field was mowed. Gone were the birds. What is not known is how many nests and young were lost also? The area was then quiet. Lost habitat.

What if we could share the land and be aware of our neighbors who dwell with us? What if we managed land for grassland species too? Not only birds benefit from these habitats but also many pollinators--butterflies, bees, as well as dragonflies, and other wildlife. Grassland birds such as those mentioned above and Eastern Bluebirds, Wild Turkey, Bobwhite, Savannah Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, Bobolinks, Northern Harriers, and American Kestrels depend on these unique habitats. These birds eat many insects especially during their breeding season.

Grassland Habitat                                          ©Joni L. James

The ideal grassland sites are at least 10 acres of continuous open fields (no woody vegetation),  but preferably more than 15 acres. Old hayfields, overgrown cropland, and abandoned fields are suitable for grassland bird habitat development. If as a landowner you have less than 10 acres, you can still consider developing and managing it for these species.

Grassland species benefit from varying grass heights. Planting native grasses and plants can enhance the habitat with a mix of warm and cool season grasses. Warm season grasses include Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Big Bluestem and cool season grasses include Kentucky Bluegrass, Timothy, Red Fescue, and Redtop. Most grassland birds can tolerate a moderate forb content (weeds & wildflowers such as goldenrod, daisies, asters, etc.), however if forbs equal or outnumber grasses, the habitat is less attractive to them. Fields are best if they contain no more than 25% other plant species than grasses.

Farmers and private landowners can adopt various management strategies:

  • Delay mowing until after the breeding season (birds usually begin the breeding season in late April/beginning of May)--although weather and the presence of certain species can create variables-- usually waiting until after August 10. 
  • Fields will benefit from being mowed at the end of the breeding season (after August 10) at 4-6 inches high, but before fall. Autumn mowing risks spreading seeds from undesirable plants. 
  • Rotational mowing can be utilized-- dividing an area into strips that are separated from one another by 50-85 feet and then mowing is done on a rotational basis.
  • Hayfields should be mowed  from the center outward to allow birds to escape to adjacent fields.
  • Mowing should be done during daylight hours. Night mowing impacts roosting birds.
  • Rotational or deferred grazing of livestock can be conducted to benefit both forage quality and grassland bird habitat.
  • Limit the amount of herbicides and pesticides.
There is much more detail to understanding these practices and the needs of grassland birds. Helpful resources abound on the internet and I would be pleased to share those sources with anyone who wants to know more. 
My purpose is not to tell landowners how they should manage their farm or land. I simply invite readers to stop and consider the possibility of adjusting your management practices for better stewardship. Increase your awareness of your land to know what species live there. 
As Aldo Leopold stated, "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land."

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