Grassland Birds in Decline – Bobolink


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.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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43 Responses to Grassland Birds in Decline – Bobolink

  1. Annette says:

    I didn’t know this bird and it’s such a beauty. Just looked it up and saw it overwinters in South America but I didn’t get the chance to see it there, pity. It’s great that you’re raising awareness, Donna. Where I lived in the Swiss Alps farmers are paid to delay making hay in an effort to protect the local flora and fauna which should be the natural thing to do. With the ever growing population it’ll get more and more difficult to protect them though.

    • I never saw one either until I went on this trip. I wish it was mandatory to wait to cut the hay. I remember when I was younger, it was cut later. Having horses, I knew their schedules. You would think it would be natural to do this willingly, but it always seems to be about money. And you are right, it will be even more necessary as populations grow and grow. We will eventually over-produce ourselves off this planet, let alone worrying about the declining birds… I think the bees will be the awakening creature of decline. People see butterflies less now and think, “What a shame.” When bees disappear, they will be be thinking. “What a shame for humanity.”

  2. I always learn something visiting you, Donna and with such a beautiful way [your photos!].
    Happy new week! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. The Western New York Land Conservancy is a not-for-profit land trust that works with landowners, municipalities, and other organizations to help conserve natural areas and working farms.

  4. Jet Eliot says:

    I enjoyed your comprehensive post, Donna, and the highlight of the disappearing grasslands. I’ve traversed numerous prairies in the U.S., but have yet to see the bobolink. These photos, therefore, are remarkable to me.

    • Thank you. I too have been to OK and Kansas, in fact all the west and Midwest states. I have been to Knox Farm only in winter, so I never thought about what might live in the hay fields there. Going with birders is so enlightening because they know the habitat of specific birds and where to find them, but more importantly when. Sometimes it can only be days to see certain birds. At Knox Farm, there were so many bobolinks it was almost unbelievable not to have ever noticed them before anywhere. Mostly they are found low in the grass like in some of my photos, others are chasing off competitors to their nesting site. That happens so fast, you have to follow them back to where they have staked a claim. Some birds, like in my photos will sit a top a tree to scan their territory. Those are easy to miss too unless looking for them. Without the guides, I would never have even noticed this bird.

  5. alesiablogs says:

    I just could not hold back the tears when you mentioned ….” baby birds still calling from inside the cut hay.” I am sorry you just got me with this one.

    • When we were told about the baby birds I was sick to my stomach. It was even worse because as the machinery is driven through the fields, the parent birds are flying behind and above the cutter – and up to the windows where the driver sits in the tractor – frantically calling. After I heard this, I do remember seeing that when watching fields being cut. I never knew why birds followed the tractors and mowers.

  6. Being as we live in the country in Central/Northern New York, I’ve had the opportunity to see these birds for several years now. I always enjoy their spring song. In our area several farmers are not farming their land anymore. Hope this helps. Nice article with great photos!

    • We were told when farmers stop cutting and planting, it often means the land is being sold. Some the government gave them money to not plant, but with the farm bill, I don’t know what happened to that program. I should have asked our guide. I was asking a lot of questions though. He gave us statistics on fallow land being turned into housing development, but I don’t remember.

      It is good you see the bobolink. For all the time I spent on horseback though fields and pastures, I never saw one to my knowledge. If not for the birders, I would have likely not known what I was seeing even if I got a quick look. Even at the nursery farm where I worked there were many uncultivated fields and I never saw one. Being with those in the know really opened my eyes on many birds and habitats.

  7. as always, the images are lovely! the first one is my favorite.

    you might enjoy reading michael godfrey’s posts :

    • I read his long article, thank you for the link. I think it is a dilemma for farmers. My cousin who has a horse farm in Pennsylvania grows hay and comes to the US from her home in St. Lucia each late May to cut the hay in early June to ship to St. Lucia for her horses there. This is the critical time for these birds. Sadly, they don’t stand a chance.

      In his article, they talked about leaving some fields uncut. Some suggested getting together with neighboring farms to have adjoining uncut plots. As great a plan as this is, it is still their livelihood and cutting the hay at the prime time is going to happen, as he said in his article, when it is most nutritious for the cattle. Leaving land uncut does not make sense for farmers i would think.

      I am not sure if it matters whether it is grazing cattle or meat cattle. Pastures are a prime nesting place for the birds, so dairy cattle would seem to be a better choice. Meat cattle in stalls need hay each day, I am assuming – I know nothing about cows. It makes sense that a lot of habitat destruction comes from raising any type of cattle, even though in his article he said cows are good for the birds because their grazing helps make prairie lands. I never once thought about from where the hay came that I fed my horses. Sure I saw it being cut, but not the damage it was doing to other creatures. I cannot imagine many farmers sympathetic to these specialist birds.

  8. Nick Hunter says:

    Good story. The first image is superb. i haven’t seen one in 4 or 5 years, but I’m always on the lookout, and hopeful.

    • I never knew where to find them, but now I do. Needing so many acres because they live in the center of the fields, I never would have seen them without the birders. The guide did tell us that there are fewer each year. I saw so many, but he said that is nothing like it was before.

  9. Bequeathing land must be done carefully – wills can and have been broken, as was done with the woodlands at the corner of 20A and McKinley Parkway that was demolished in order to create a now defunct Walmart. In New York State, the best way to preserve land is with a conservation easement. Had the Knox family gone this route before turning the land over to New York State, there would have been no concerns if the property had been sold-off. A conservation easement is a legal contract that cannot be broken regardless of how that land is passed along from owner to owner through the years. Organizations such as the WNY Land Conservancy and Genesee Valley Conservancy can help landowners craft an easement that will dictate how the land land can be used (or not used) into perpetuity.

    • Thank you very much for the useful information. It does seem very complicated with much legalities of which I am unfamiliar. I think most in the position to bequeath land likely have the lawyers knowing the ways to do it. I did not hear of the example you gave though on Rt20A. A Walmart – what an insult. I don’t ever shop Walmart for reasons such as this. They don’t seem very sympathetic to employees either. My family (cousins and aunts) have bequeathed lands and homes and have protected it as you mentioned. A mansion in question is in the midst of legal issues regarding those maintaining the property, and it may revert back to the family. It pays to have expert legal advice. One cousin also has a conservancy easement (or something similar) on her property in the event of sale. There is also a green initiative on the property that keeps anyone purchasing from parceling the land for development. If they would want to, the State collects many years of back taxes. That keeps many properties from being developed.I have no clue how NY handles wills, but I am guessing with more red tape than other states.

  10. Excellent look at the situation with grassland birds. Are you aware of the remnant prairie on Long Island – Hempstead Plains? Here’s a link:

    • I did hear of that place, but know next to nothing about it. I read the post and am still unsure why it was a prairie other than being very large in area. He mentioned it having a close resemblance to dry prairie but not the deep soils. Getting more rain was the reason it could be sustained. Also there was evidence of fire to maintain the grasslands long ago. It would be interesting to really learn the differences of what makes one place a prairie and another just open area, but I would have to look into this to further understand the differences. Since he brought up the glacial activity in our area, that is why I would believe we were without prairies. Too much rock. Our guide said we did not have prairie here but I believe he meant our immediate area.

      • bittster says:

        We went on a school trip to the Hempstead prairie one year. It was a sad remnant surrounded by development and invaded by pioneering trees. What it really needed was a good fire, not an annual mowing. I just don’t think it’s the same effect.
        hmmmm, that visit was close to thirty years ago. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. debsgarden says:

    This post made me sad. I can hear those tiny cheeps coming from bales of hay! If there can be such an uproar as was made over the snail darter, surely the Bobwhite can be saved! In my life I have seen a lot of pastureland paved over for parking lots and commercial buildings, and we have way too many strip malls now. A lot of them have vacancies. Somehow, the public must become aware of the value of undeveloped land.

    • It is the same up here. Strip malls lay vacant. Many times, a big company like Walmart or Sams builds a new building only miles away. The old one sits and decays. The real problem is that buildings like this are only built to last a short time. This really bugs me about architecture and development. Why? – cost. A throw away society. Cheaper to pay the reduced or non-existant taxes on a property until the contract date is up and the company stays the contracted time (why they stay a short time) and hope another company wants to purchase the land. They just sit. Parking lots are another thing cities do when they demolish old buildings. Rather than have it revert to succession plants of a weedy lot, they pave it. Less maintenance from mowing. If those lots go unpaved, it is pretty amazing what moves in. Insects and birds come back. But a parking lot does little for either.

  12. Phil Lanoue says:

    So sad to think of the numbers of these wonderful birds diminishing. We are losing habitat here on an almost daily basis.
    Terrific photos/

    • Thank you, Phil. I did not get an estimate of losses from the guide, but if there is a 94% mortality rate, it makes sense they will disappear over time. What of your marsh? Does it face disappearance? Rising sea water (melting icecaps) will affect the coastlines all around the world, but what I read was the swamps, estuaries and marshes will just move further inland. But if it comes to saving cities, engineers will take that off the table. Crazy world we live in.

  13. Pat says:

    Excellent reporting of a sad situation, Your photos, as usual, are beautiful.

  14. Brian Comeau says:

    As others have said, I always learn something new from you. Thanks for educating us. Never heard of this bird before or how the harvesting can ruin some many of these nest. Sad….

  15. This is a story sadly that is playing out with lots species of all kinds all over the world, and it just breaks my heart. Great photos and narrative as usual. Blessings, Natalie ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Sarah says:

    Beautiful pictures and thoughtful commentary. I look forward to seeing and reading more as I follow your blog.

  17. A.M.B. says:

    I had never heard of this bird before. It’s beautiful! I hope its population grows.

    • With a 94% mortality rate in the hay fields of its nesting, that is very wishful thinking. I would love for the population upswing to occur. Ground nesters do have so many different dangers to confront. Some have a unique way to handle it too. I have a post coming up on another ground nesting bird with a really funny way to confuse predators.

      • A.M.B. says:

        Yeah, that doesn’t sound like much cause for optimism. I hope things turn around, though, and posts like yours must help.

  18. Cathy Testa says:

    What a beautiful BIRD!!

  19. Debra says:

    It is sad that people only appreciate certain types of landscapes. There has been a long tradition of seeing grasslands in America as junk lands. The people who first started settling the area (unsettling it maybe?) originally called the prairie a desert — seeing it as a wide open wasted use of space. They were so wrong. Now praiires and grasslands are probably the most endangered habitats of all. There are little preserves here and there to help us remember. Thanks for the lovely photos. I liked all of them of course but the farm scene was a treat.

    • Our guide mentioned the settlers’ view of grasslands as areas to start farming. I can see them being viewed as junk land too. My question would be how many actual original grasslands could exist? Even the prairies were created by man and now sustained by grazing cattle and wild horses, so what is truly original grasslands? Our guide did say that the cattle and Native American farm practices were beneficial to these birds and a variety of insects, but in both land uses, surely not beneficial to other birds, insects and animals. Change is inevitable and will always be part of a nature where humans predominate.

      • Debra says:

        I agree that where there are humans there will be change. But unlike a virus we can make some long term decisions about what direction we want to go: life affirming or annihilating. The original grasslands and prairies are gone. Less than 1% of those fragile ecosystems that used to fill up most of continental North America remain. How much could exist today? Certainly the short grass prairie areas which was never suited to European farming methods. Trying to do so caused the dust bowl. Today the short grass prairies have been abandoned. There is a bit of ranching but mostly the areas are uninhabited. They have the lowest human settlement today and are among the poorest areas in America. Those areas could have been left untouched. Non native cattle can never sustain these lands and continue to destroy what little life is there. For the mixed grass and tall grass prairies/grasslands we could still have wildlife corridors. That is doable. Much of our agricultural land is wasted through poor practices and the whole cattle industry which takes in 1/3 of all the food we grow.

  20. Great that you brought this issue to light for us Donna. It makes sense that this habitat loss is most important. I have never seen a bobolink and I am saddened to hear that hay fields where they nest are mowed killing nestlings. There are some grasslands around that are not mowed as CNY still has grasslands but I do not live near them to see this bird…what a treat you have given us!

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