Bobolinks and Meadowlarks in Search of Some Breeding Space
Long a familiar sight in southern Ontario farm fields, these grassland birds are disappearing. So conservationists and others are joining forces to find practical ways to reverse the decline.
The voices of bobolinks and meadowlarks were once part of the soundscape of the tallgrass seas of mid-North America. Prairies were alive with the buzzing of rattlesnakes, the clucking of prairie chickens, the hoofbeats of antelope and the barking of prairie dogs. And of course, the thunder of millions of bison. The grasses of that soundscape, in full flourish, were tall enough to caress the withers of horses ridden by the Dakota, the Siksika and other Aboriginal peoples. Bobolinks and meadowlarks thrived among these grasses and undoubtedly found their way into First Nations’ lore, for these birds of song and colour are impossible to ignore.
Bobolinks and meadowlarks were probably also familiar to the Petun, Neutral and Wendat of Ontario. Though natural prairie in this province was scarce, these groups burned and cut woodland to create sunlit openings for farming and hunting, providing habitat not only for deer, but also for grassland birds.
Here in the Headwaters region, though, grassland birds were likely few and far between. As documented by John Riley in The Once and Future Great Lakes Country, the “Ontario Island,” which includes Dufferin County, was “thick old-growth forest” before the arrival of Europeans, though beaver meadows probably offered bobolinks and meadowlarks some limited habitat.
With European settlement, everything changed. The great forests of the Headwaters region and much of eastern North America fell to the saw. Agriculture became dominant. Farther west, the tallgrass prairie was churned under by the plough, and its magnificent abundance of growing, flying and running things was largely destroyed and replaced with monocultures of corn and wheat. Bobolinks and meadowlarks clung to forgotten parcels of the original prairie but, like refugees from a war zone, sought salvation elsewhere. The newly cleared hayfields and pastures of eastern North America beckoned.
For much of the 20th century, these birds thrived in Ontario and elsewhere in eastern North America. But now, once again, they are challenged by sweeping landscape changes. The habitat we inadvertently provided is shrinking in response to powerful international market forces. As commodity prices rise, pastures and hayfields are losing ground to corn, soybeans and winter wheat. Marginal farmland is being abandoned. Suburban sprawl gnaws at the farmland surrounding towns and cities. In some areas land prices are spiking, driving ownership out of the reach of farmers. This time the bobolinks and meadowlarks have nowhere else to go.
In 2010, the bobolink was listed as a threatened species in Ontario and Canada, and the meadowlark in 2011, because of the steadily declining trend in their population over the previous four decades. To be clear, there are still lots of bobolinks and meadowlarks around, but their current downward trajectory is ominous and shows no signs of changing. In the first decade of the 21st century, an estimated one-third of bobolinks and a quarter of meadowlarks were lost.
Do we have a responsibility to stop the decline? Jon McCracken thinks so. A biologist with Bird Studies Canada and co-chair of the Bobolink Round Table, a group charged with exploring solutions to the decline of these birds, McCracken notes, “Ontario alone has 13 per cent of the world’s population of bobolinks, and Ontario meadowlarks represent 70 per cent of Canada’s population. Hence we have high jurisdictional responsibility in Ontario to conserve these species.
“We share this conservation responsibility with many other jurisdictions” he adds, “so it’s definitely not just up to Ontario. Still, if we don’t pull our weight, and others don’t either, then what?”
The shared responsibility “with many other jurisdictions” is problematic, especially for bobolink conservation. It is easier to contemplate cross-jurisdictional protection of meadowlarks. The comings and goings of meadowlarks take most of them no farther than the southern United States and back.
But bobolink migration is a Homeric odyssey. Birds that nest in Caledon or Mono or Melancthon might fly more than 10,000 kilometres to spend our winter with the rheas, armadillos and anteaters of the Argentinian pampas. In the many countries they traverse, they are obviously acutely vulnerable to all manner of assaults, including habitat loss, pesticide use and direct persecution.
Still, as McCracken says, we need to pull our weight – and the first steps have been taken. Listing bobolinks and meadowlarks as “threatened” under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act required the development of a recovery strategy, and this was accomplished in 2013. In addition, species designated as threatened are immediately sheltered by a legislative umbrella that protects both the species and its habitat. Usually.
It turns out that protecting grassland birds and their habitat presents difficult challenges. It can be hard enough to protect species that inhabit natural areas such as woodlands and wetlands, even when the land is publicly owned. But bobolinks and meadowlarks, unlike most species at risk, are creatures of active working landscapes. Their crucial habitat extends over thousands of hectares of private farmland – farms buffeted by the shifting demands of the market, farms intent on generating income, farms intent on survival.
Hayfields on those farms are integral to the survival of grassland birds, but they need hayfields that aren’t harvested until mid-July, after bobolink and meadowlark young have left their nests. Earlier harvests either kill the young outright or expose them to the eyes of hungry predators such as crows and ravens.
How do you tell farmers, the very people most responsible for the survival of bobolinks and meadowlarks in the first place, how to manage their land? How do you tell them not to cut their hay until the young birds have left their nests? The answer is you can’t.
Cutting hay before bobolinks and meadowlarks have completed breeding in late May or June allows a second harvest later in the summer and an increase in overall hay production. The early cut of hay also contains more protein than hay left standing into July and August. Dairy cattle in particular must be fed this high-protein hay.
Still, most farmers, and just about everyone else, want to save bobolinks and meadowlarks. And the Endangered Species Act demands action toward this end. Enter the Bobolink Round Table, a group that includes representation from agriculture, environmental organizations, developers and First Nations – groups that often have wildly divergent viewpoints on environmental issues.
Despite this, in 2011, the difficulty of accommodating the needs of both agriculture and grassland birds led to a consensus among the roundtable stakeholders to call for a three-year exemption for agriculture from the protective provisions of the ESA. The exemption was recently extended to December this year, and a further extension is expected.
The exemption, which allows farmers to conduct business as usual without fear of being prosecuted under the act, provides more time to explore solutions that roundtable members hope will influence farm management through incentives, not punitive measures. McCracken says the exemption “recognizes the critical role of farmers who provide most of the grassland habitat needed by grassland species these days. Without habitat, the birds are gone.”
In the face of the daunting challenges of keeping the grassland birds down on the farm, Credit Valley Conservation has developed a two-pronged approach. One is an exciting grassland restoration project underway at Upper Credit Conservation Area just outside Alton (see below under More Information).
Another is the Bird-Friendly Certified Hay Program, which was introduced last year. To qualify for this program, farmers and landowners must agree not to cut their hay until July 15. Once CVC staff has checked to ensure that bobolinks and meadowlarks have finished fledging before July 15, staff will notify all hay growers and permit early cutting. In a year with a warm spring, this may occur as early as July 1, as it did last year, or it may be delayed until July 15 or even a few days beyond that.
Mark Eastman, CVC’s agricultural extension program co-ordinator, sees bird-friendly hay as an opportunity to use a market-based approach to help bobolinks and meadowlarks. “We’ve created a website as an online tool to connect three groups: the hay grower, the hay purchaser and the rural landowner who might rent his land to a grower.”
Hayfields with an area of five hectares (about 12 acres) or more – large enough for bobolinks and meadowlarks to breed in – are eligible, but Eastman acknowledges he wouldn’t turn down farmers with smaller fields that have verified nestings.
This innovative program is designed to work within the realities of agriculture in the Credit Valley watershed, where proximity to the GTA means farmland is expensive, driven up in price by the appetite of city dwellers for rural properties.
Eastman sees landowners who may have little or no experience with farming as one group who could benefit from the bird-friendly hay program. As an example, he considers a hypothetical 100-acre farm purchased by a non-farmer with a strong environmental ethic. “We might suggest to such a landowner that instead of retiring the full 100 acres from agricultural production, it would make sense to devote some of it to hay – hay that will provide habitat to grassland birds.”
An approach like this has obvious environmental appeal and also offers an attractive economic incentive. Landowners who keep their land in production by renting it to a farmer with a farm business registration enjoy the same 75 per cent reduction in the municipal residential tax rate as registered farmers.
Giving non-farm landowners options for using their land also appeals to farmer Jake Grift of Erin. “I think where bird-friendly hay really makes sense is for landowners who really don’t know what to do with that land. I have the expertise and the equipment to manage their land, and they get a huge tax break.”
What’s in it for Grift? To be honest, one incentive is cheap hay for his horses. Grift farms bird-friendly hay for a landowner on Shaws Creek Road. He produces the hay, leaves 200 small bales for the landowner as rent, and takes the rest for his horses.
Grift notes that the diminished protein content of hay cut after July 15 is fine for most horses. Not for racehorses, he emphasizes, but for horses that are harnessed for a gentle saunter once or twice a week. “In the winter horses stand around the hay bale all day feeding,” he says. “High-protein hay would kill them, because they don’t stop eating. Lesser quality hay for that purpose is great. It gives them something to do other than chew my fences. So the hay fits their needs and our needs.”
Lest Grift be accused of acting out of motives that are purely mercenary, consider that he sees his involvement with the hay program as taking some of the heat off other farmers, such as dairy farmers, who must cut their hay early.
Eastman would agree with Grift on this. He too understands the need to “take the pressure off farmers [for grassland bird protection] where it really isn’t an option.” He believes there is a “need to get away from managing endangered species at an individual farm level and instead manage such species at a landscape level.” This means looking broadly at agriculture and finding gains for bobolinks and meadowlarks within those farming operations that are best-suited economically to support their survival.
Beef cattle operations are an example. Like pleasure-riding horses, beef cattle rely less on a steady diet of high-protein hay. Hay cut after July 15 is fine for them. Certified bird-friendly hay is part of the feed mix for the beef cattle at Paradise Farms of Caledon. It’s a great fit with the “natural farming” strategy of owner Shane Baghai. In a recent news release from Credit Valley Conservation, Baghai says, “When I buy bird-friendly certified hay, it’s my way of contributing to bird sanctuaries and it’s good for my business. It adds to my farm’s credibility and my cattle enjoy the hay.”
Paradise Farms can now promote its beef as “bird-friendly,” which precisely satisfies one of the goals of the hay program: to create a brand that will appeal to environmentally conscious consumers.
According to CVC surveys, eight farmers signed on to the program in its first year. They grew 143 acres of bird-friendly hay that provided habitat for at least 78 bobolinks and meadowlarks. Eastman hopes the program will expand this year.
McCracken calls CVC’s program “a very laudable initiative that could and should be emulated elsewhere.” But he also cautions, “It’s probably best to wait to see what lessons are learned by Credit Valley Conservation before rolling out something larger.”
A larger three-year initiative, which wrapped up in March 2015, was piloted by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association. This organization’s Grassland Habitat Farm Incentive Program, which was funded jointly by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and Environment Canada, reached out to farmers across the province, offering funds to help improve their operations while supporting grassland birds.
A variety of management practices were eligible for the program. These included removing invading shrubs and trees from pastures, bringing abandoned parcels of property back into grazing, establishing fencing to allow rotational grazing and retiring marginal farmland into grassland habitat. OSCIA recognized that farmers who grazed livestock and grew hay would be the main recipients of the money.
Interested farmers submitted applications to a competitive bid process that scored proposals according to an environmental benefit index developed by OSCIA. This allowed, according to the program website, “meaningful comparison with other submissions.” Christine Schmalz, OSCIA’s environmental programs manager, explains: “With the GHFIP, we focused our scoring system on high-quality habitat for grassland birds.”
Schmalz notes that 62 applications from across Ontario were approved. “Interest in participating in the program outstripped the available budget,” she added. “There were several strong projects that we were not able to fit within the pilot program.”
Though funding for the program has ended, Schmalz said the concept remains very much alive. “We would love to explore the idea of extending or enhancing the program.”
For her, the program’s popularity demonstrated “a strong willingness from the agricultural community to support grassland birds.” It also told her there are “costs associated with these stewardship practices and that compensation for a portion of these costs through incentives is key to achieving success.”
It is that elusive success that the Bobolink Round Table will continue to seek in the years to come, as its members look for solutions that benefit both birds and farmers. The success of the GHFIP suggests that a healthy infusion of taxpayer dollars may need to be part of the solution.
That agriculture will need to play the leading role in the salvation of grassland birds is a given. But if we ask the farming community to be part of the solution, we should ask others to help as well. Farmer Jake Grift suggests governments should consider managing some of their property for grassland habitat.
In the Headwaters region, Forks of the Credit Provincial Park includes several hundred hectares of abandoned farmland that currently supports bobolinks and meadowlarks, as well as imperilled monarch butterflies. But shrubs and trees are slowly reclaiming the landscape. Ontario Parks could explore the possibility of dedicating some of this open space to grassland birds and actively managing it for this purpose. With the Endangered Species Act mandating protection of such habitat, perhaps this is now a given.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture proposes that urban open spaces could also be made more bobolink- and meadowlark-friendly. Surely city planners and politicians need to consider this idea.
And why not extend our thinking even further? What of the expansive lawns fronting estates throughout the Headwaters region and the rural hinterlands of cities? Why shouldn’t private landowners share responsibility for the survival of grassland birds?
Though the size of most of these yards is probably too small to support nesting meadowlarks and bobolinks, growing a meadow instead of a lawn could provide food and shelter for these birds on either side of the nesting season. This would be a win for homeowners as well, for they could trade time spent on a mower for butterfly and birdwatching.
Birdwatching, after all, can’t help but nurture appreciation. For Mark Eastman, appreciation and education work hand in hand to enhance stewardship. As an example, he relates the story of a landowner, someone probably unable to tell a bobolink from a bobblehead, who signed on to the bird-friendly hay program for purely business reasons – and got hooked. One day Eastman received a call from the man, who said excitedly, “Mark, I think those birds are here. Can you come out and have a look!?”
In this season of pungent mud, fresh breezes, melting snow and blossoming coltsfoot, meadowlarks are returning to these hills. Look for them atop fence posts, sporting black chevron necklaces and yellow breasts as brilliant as the warming sun. Bobolinks will soon follow.
The Headwaters region will again be graced by their voices. Jon McCracken says, “I hate to sound too over the top on this, but I really think it’s true that the fields ‘are alive with the sound of music.’”
Henry David Thoreau, the famed 19th-century American naturalist, described the bobolink’s song thus: “It is as if he touched his harp within a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the trembling strings.”
Though the languid song of the meadowlark isn’t as flamboyant, it is, nonetheless, achingly beautiful, a classic standard of our rural landscape. Keeping the music alive in our hayfields and meadows is our shared responsibility. Let us have the wisdom to do it.
Testing the Ground for Grassland Restoration
This spring, a grassland for the birds will begin to grow at Upper Credit Conservation Area near the village of Alton. Credit Valley Conservation will seed seven hectares (about 17 acres) of abandoned farmland at the conservation area with a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers, including asters, goldenrod and milkweed. The grasses sown will be those of the much diminished tallgrass prairies – grasses such as big bluestem, switchgrass, wild rye and Indian grass.
The seeding will mark the third year of this grassland restoration project. In 2013, CVC used herbicide to eliminate the largely non-native vegetation from the site. Then last year soybeans were grown to enrich the soil with nitrogen. And now the fun begins. For native plant devotees like me, watching the plants grow will offer serious excitement.
The big question is, If you plant it, will they come? “They” being bobolinks and meadowlarks. Mark Eastman, CVC’s agricultural extension program co-ordinator, certainly hopes so. Eastman views the restoration as a test to find out more about the added value of native plantings. “We know that old fields with a large component of non-native plants support birds,” he says, “but we need to ask, Could it be better?”
We know that native trees make it better for birds than non-native trees. Native trees such as red oak and sugar maple support far more insect life, and hence bird life, than do such non-natives as Norway maples and little-leaf lindens that line the streets of our towns and cities. But will the native advantage hold true for wildflowers and grasses? The hope is it will.
Before embarking on the project, Credit Valley Conservation counted the arthropods – insects and other little invertebrate beasties – in the area. As the project unfolds, staff will continue to count the bugs and the birds, to determine whether the number increases in a native grassland habitat.
The verdict won’t be in for several years. During this time CVC will actively manage the area to suppress non-native plants through cutting and spot spraying, and perhaps eventually with fire, the way Aboriginal people managed grasslands.
If the project is deemed a success – if the restored native grassland does in fact attract more insects and birds – CVC may see fit, in Eastman’s words, to “devote money and resources to similar projects in the coming years.” And maybe other agencies intent on helping grassland birds will come here to learn.
When bobolinks do eventually sing atop the tall grasses at Upper Credit Conservation Area, it will be a good day.