Molnar: Saving Birds Acre By Acre

Aug 1, 2017

Like July, our resident bobolink population has come and gone. The meadow has grown almost silent without the birds Emily Dickinson called “the rowdy of the meadow.”

I miss their bubbly song, but I’m content to know they’ve enjoyed their visit to our Vermont hilltop, to build nests and raise a new generation – all in a mere six weeks or so.

But elsewhere, all’s not well with bobolinks, nor with other grassland birds like the eastern meadowlark and the vesper and grasshopper sparrows, all of which nest in hayfields and pastures. According to recent surveys by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, their populations are still declining in Vermont.

Biologist John Buck explains this is mostly due to early and frequent mowing at the height of the nesting season, crushing nests and shredding eggs or killing unfledged chicks.

It’s easy for my husband and me to leave our fields uncut until the birds have departed. The tall grass and wildflowers are beautiful, and since we’re not farmers, there’s no cost associated with our largesse.

But cutting early and often yields more and higher quality hay for a farmer. So a novel program has been developed to encourage farmers to share their fields with the birds without suffering an economic loss.

The Bobolink Project uses donated funds to compensate farmers who agree to modify their mowing schedules so the birds can raise their young. Since 2013, a total of more than one hundred fifty four thousand dollars has been raised in Vermont, enough to cover fifteen hundred acres of hayfields.

As for landowners who simply like a manicured lawn, John Buck recommends simply waiting until after August 1st to get that look.

Fields and pastures in Vermont and neighboring states remain the last refuge for grassland birds because their original habitat in the American and Canadian prairies were plowed under long ago to make way for corn and soybeans. The birds moved east, but trouble followed as eastern pastures reverted to forest.

One hundred years ago, seventy five percent of Vermont was pasture and twenty five percent forest; today, it’s the reverse. So the remaining open fields are more important than ever to our beautiful grassland birds.

Even non-farmers can help by supporting the Bobolink Project, and by letting our lawns become meadows for at least the first few weeks of summer.