Farmers are focus of efforts to help Vermont birds rebound

Bobolinks are one of several species of grassland birds whose populations are in decline in Vermont. Courtesy photo

A nonprofit group is giving some farmers a financial hand so they can help bird species that are in steep decline.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department asked landowners to put off cutting hayfields and pastures until August because of a drop in the populations of species that rely on grasslands for nesting.

John Buck, who holds the recently created position of avian biologist with the department, said the drop in numbers of many Vermont grassland birds has been precipitous in recent decades.

“For bobolink, it’s been a steady decline,” Buck said. “You could say they are in somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent of what they were 50 years ago. And others are greater than that — you know the loss is greater.”

The primary reason for the decline in these population has been habitat destruction caused by humans, Buck said.

But mowing later is not a casual proposition for all Vermonters. Buck acknowledged that farmers can face substantial feed and forage costs if they hold off on haying until August.

“I think every farmer would mow according to bobolink nesting schedule if they could, but they’re just in a really tough place,” Buck said. “The agricultural practices have become far more intensive than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” so in order for “farms to be competitive and stay in business, they don’t have a lot of choice.”

That’s where the Bobolink Project steps in. The nonprofit conservation group provides grants to farmers for leaving hay in the field longer as nesting habitat.

The organization is run by the Audubon societies of Massachusetts and Vermont, the University of Vermont and several other organizations. It works with farmers to identify which parts of their grasslands are most essential to conserve, then makes grants to offset the costs of buying whatever those acres would have produced.

This summer, the Bobolink Project provided subsidies to 17 farmers around New England to delay mowing on 600 acres of nesting habitat. The funding comes from donations.

All of Vermont’s grassland birds are migratory and fly far south for the winter, Buck said, so the health of their populations is also influenced by conditions in their southern habitats. But they hatch their young in Vermont and other parts of the northern U.S. during the summer.

A long history of change

The decline of grassland birds has not been caused exclusively by an increase in the frequency and intensity of mowing, Buck said. Long-term historical trends have played an important role.

Five or six hundred years ago, Buck said, the populations of grassland birds were intimately connected with the beaver population.

John Buck
Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist John Buck surveys for grassland birds at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area. Courtesy photo
Before beavers were trapped nearly to extinction by colonists, the areas the animals periodically flooded probably “covered hundreds of acres in places that we wouldn’t even imagine,” Buck said.

At their peak, the domain influenced by New England beavers included the mouths of major rivers, all along the Connecticut River and really “any flat area at all, like all up and down Chittenden County,” Buck said.

Their populations went through boom and bust cycles. During a low population point, the beaver marshes would dry out into large meadows of grass and sedge — a key part of grassland bird habitat.

After humans largely eliminated the beaver, settlers created new grasslands in the form of pastures and fields. Indeed, the current consensus is that New England’s grassland bird population peaked during the 19th century when farms covered most of the arable land.

Since then, Buck said, the populations of Vermont’s grassland birds have declined partly because of land development, but more significantly because of changes in the economics of farming.

Over the 20th century, the total acreage of Vermont farmland fell greatly. Many former pastures and fields were reclaimed by forests, and the ones that remain see more intensive mowing, Buck said.

Why the bobolink?

The bobolink is the face of the grassland bird conservation movement for two reasons, Buck said.

It is what naturalists call an umbrella species, or a species that can serve as an indicator for the health of other related species in its ecological niche.

“When you have habitat conditions that are supporting robust numbers of bobolinks, there’s a very good chance that you are also supporting the other grassland birds that we’re concerned about,” Buck said.

Second, people simply know and like them.

Bobolinks are easy to recognize. The male has a distinctive plumage that includes a shock of bright yellow feathers on the back of its head, a black breast, and white back and wings.

The male bobolink’s song is famously evocative, too. Over the years, it has inspired poets like Emily Dickinson and William Cullen Bryant.

Arthur Cleveland Dent, an early 20th-century ornithologist, described it as “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.”

Buck said the hope is that the popularity of the bobolink will spur the same success as in restoring other popular species, such as the common loon or the bald eagle, with all grassland birds.

“Now we’ve gotten some of the bigger birds in a better place,” Buck said, “we need to be working on some of the lesser-known, less easily identified birds, because they’re all part of the whole conservation picture that we need to be part of here.”

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  • Ken Egnaczak

    Anyone care to comment on the quality of first cut hay harvested in August ? How about this for maybe a better idea: Pass a regulation that requires all ground mount solar installations ( and maybe wind generator sites too) to be mounted high enough to allow these grasslands under the panels. Hey, the hydro guys are forced to accommodate aquatic life so why shouldn’t the solar guys be forced to accommodate grassland flora and fauna ? These birds will also be protected by the chain link fence topped with barbed wire that typically surrounds solar installations.

    • Connie Cizmadia Brown

      My first thought, because the solar fields around rutland were prime winter deer yds. and summer bird habitat. The Diamond Run mall was allowed on prime winter habit, ask any Vter. familiar with that area :'(

  • John MacGovern

    Great article. Thank you for writing about these lovely creatures and the efforts to protect them.

  • Bob Orleck

    It is eerie to go out in the morning and hear and see no birds. We used to have swallows, cedar wax wings and chickadees everywhere. This year, they are a rare sight. What has happened? The bugs are getting the best of us and one of our best friends, the birds, have disappeared. .

  • Michael Lloyd

    I have goats. The mixture of grasses, clover, wild flowers and weeds from hay cut now makes for a great bale of hay. As long as it gets cut before all the Goldenrod takes over.

  • Brooke Paige

    The bobolink’s breeding habitats are open grassy fields, especially hay fields, the agricultural landscape which are being destroyed by the erection of the numerous “black billboard” solar fields. These installations are crowding out the living spaces for numerous local and migratory birds that are attracted to both active fields and fields that are no longer in active production, a favorite target for the “green energy” profiteers !

  • Richard Ley

    We are slowly being destroyed by Green Mountain Power and their greed…
    I have address this several times on their postings and they claim this has no effect whatsoever on wildlife
    Thank you for this article because it exposes the damage that is being done by these monstrous black panels that it’s some point become hazardous materials as well
    The people that are claiming to save us will be the very people that destroy us in the end