My friend and I joined a few more friends on an outing of birders led by some knowledgeable folks from the Niagara Parks Department to Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora, NY. Our quarry for the day was the bobolink, a bird I had not seen before. We witnessed the male birds singing their melodic song and courtship flights while they were looking for the females.
On our walk at Knox Farms, the group leader went into length on the decline of grassland birds. Some of the reasons are obvious, like habitat decline.
But did you ever think about how the grasslands were formed and if they are native to where you live? Well, our guide told us.
From a historical perspective, natural disturbances like fire, ice storms, hurricanes, beaver activity, and native grazing animals helped create the grasslands in the US. The Native Americans also created prairies from burning the land for their own agricultural practices. These things helped provide habitat for the specialists like the bobolink.
What is different between the east and west grasslands?
This area never had prairies, but did have many open areas after the 1800’s. Our open areas are different (not as much land mass devoted to grasslands and different plant species) than that found in the Midwest and so are our grassland birds.
Grasslands comprise a rich variety of plants, each hosting its own community of birds in both regions. I think the main difference to the land is seeing the horizon far in the distance, bounding over flat terrain stretching as far as the eye can see, or gently rolling until it kisses the sky. It is flat here in our area, but nothing as pleasing or poetic as in the Midwest.
The Midwest has some very interesting birds like the prairie chicken and Dickcissel, but the bobolink and Eastern meadowlark are pretty birds too which we do have. We also have a large variety of native sparrows that migrate through feeding on the seed of last year’s fall plants.
So why does losing grasslands matter?
Across the country, the elimination of native herbivores, farming proliferation and size, development, and the need for fire control and suppression caused the grasslands to shrink. The problem with this habitat loss is the species specially adapted to using it. I have come to realize that even more than disappearing understory and woodlands, or even the very important wetlands, grassland habitat is a very under-appreciated biome, yet very necessary to both wildlife and to us as a people.
During the past 25 years, grassland birds have experienced more widespread population declines than any other group of bird species in North America. Because some of the grassland birds are migrant, the problem extends to a large group of birds, both in summer and winter.
In the 1800s, much of the land was cleared for hay fields and pastures. The grassland birds benefited from this newly created habitat. Birds such as the grasshopper sparrow, savannah sparrow, eastern meadowlark, and bobolink all benefited.
Many of the family farms have been sold off, housing or strip malls built in its place. Some were acquired by mega farming organizations growing one crop like soy, others to produce corn for ethanol.
Many of these birds find this farmland has become fragmented, smaller and isolated, making it no longer suitable to their needs.
So where do they go?
These birds are now dependent on the privately owned hay fields and pastures for their survival.
Knox Farms has 633 acres, much planted in hay. Grassland birds need about 25 acres of open grassland.
But in that there is its own danger.
The main problem is that hay is primed to be harvested before the bobolinks are fledged, we were told. It seems heartless not to wait, but maximum profit happens with early harvesting. The nests get crushed, chopped, and baled, baby birds still calling from inside the cut hay. In a Cornell University study, the bobolink nestling mortality in mowed hay fields is estimated at 94 percent.
The State leases land to farmers in this State Park, but we were told that they use bird-friendly haying practices. If all across the country farmers cut early, eventually the bobolinks will disappear. Very sad to imagine.
Can you imagine after going thousands of miles and finding your home missing?
Our guide mentioned that bobolinks travel further in migration than any other land bird. The males arrive first (here around mid May, maybe all the way from Argentina, approximately 5,700 miles) to set up nesting sites. He said they can fly 1000 miles per day, up to a total distance of 12,500 miles with a long flight over the Gulf of Mexico. People in cars rarely make that many miles in a day.
These birds are in the blackbird and oriole family. I can see the resemblance to red-winged blackbirds and the orioles. See my post on the colorful orioles to see that bird.
I think it will be a shame to lose the song of these birds if they disappear. The NWF did an article called Vanishing Voices. It was a good summary of what is happening to the grassland birds.
So what can be done for vanishing grasslands?
Sadly not as much as is necessary, but preserve places like Knox Farm. The local community saved this State Park from being sold off by the State when they were reviewing closing State Parks due to budgetary constraints. The people petitioned and came out to the park to register their concerns. So I guess that is one way to help. Another is to bequeath land. Another is support organizations that buy land to preserve and conserve. We all can do something to help, even if only helping a vanishing bird in our grasslands, forests or wetlands.
For the funny side of gardening, see Cafe de Squirrel if you missed it. A cute look at a little pest.