Grassland Owners Put Off Haying To Save Migratory Birds

Aug 7, 2017

Vermont farmers are taking part in a regionwide effort to put off haying, when possible, to give grassland birds a better chance of surviving.

Across New England migrating birds that make their nests in grasslands are being threatened as their important breeding grounds in the Northeast disappear.

Economic pressures force farmers to mow their fields earlier, and more often, while encroaching development overtakes more open fields every year.

Walt Cottrell is a retired wildlife biologist who lives in Newbury, a tiny town in the Connecticut River Valley, and he keeps a close watch on the birds, plants and animals that live among the 48 acres of grasslands he hays every year.

And when something changes, he notices.

"For many years we had bobolinks here, as well as some of the sparrow species, and the bobolinks disappeared about, oh, 10 years ago," Cottrell says. "I know they're around the state, but they're not here anymore."

Bobolinks are small birds that like to make their nests in the spring, down in the high grass, and they're disappearing across the Northeast, according to recent state and federal bird counts.

It's tough to say exactly why the number of bobolinks is declining, but every time hay is harvested early in the season, or some kind of development gobbles up a field, that's one less place for the bobolink to make a nest.

So Cottrell is taking part in a region-wide initiative to delay his haying schedule, in the hope that the migratory bird will return to these fields someday.

"We value the species and we value the ability to create habitat," Cottrell says. "And we enjoy, not only the viewing of them on those few weeks of the year we can do that, but also the knowledge that we can contribute to the species survival."

Whether or not the bobolink can survive is still an open question, and their numbers have been steadily declining over the past decade.

And it's not only the loss of nesting habitat that's contributing to the declining bird counts. These birds travel down to South America each winter, and a lot can happen along their journey.
 

"We can only provide what we can provide here in Vermont for these summer residents, for these grassland birds, in the hopes that they'll do well elsewhere too." - John Buck, state biologist
The bobolink has been disappearing from the Northeast and landowners are being asked to delay haying to give them a chance to survive.
Credit John Hall / Vermont Fish and Wildlife

So Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department biologist John Buck says the least we can do is give them a safe place to make a nest when they return to New England.

"Some of them fly over the Gulf of Mexico and that's wide open water," Buck says. "There's no place to land and if you get a bad storm and you're done for. We can only provide what we can provide here in Vermont for these summer residents, for these grassland birds, in the hopes that they'll do well elsewhere too."

Some landowners hay their fields to keep the views open and they're voluntarily putting off their haying schedule until early August to give the nesting birds a chance to reestablish themselves.

But Buck says it can be a much harder sell to dairy farmers who need the nutrient-rich early cuttings.

To make it easier to convince farmers to delay their cutting Vermont joined the Bobolink Project, which started in Rhode Island in 2007.

The conservation initiative raises funding through donations and then pays farmers who  are willing to put off their haying.

Buck says last year 17 Vermont farmers helped protect about 600 acres through the Bobolink Project.

"People by and large are very compassionate," says Buck. "But the facts remain that it costs money to run the farm, and if it's a dairy farm you're really at the mercy of whatever the milk prices might be from month to month. Dairy farmers would like to help the birds but they know they have to maintain their farm, as well, and this is just the conundrum we all face with dealing with grasslands habitats."

Buck says only about four percent of Vermont is covered by grasslands and he admits that this whole project is untested.

Bobolinks return to the same area each spring and Buck hopes that, as more grasslands open up, their numbers will start to increase or at least hold steady.