Across much of North America, natural habitats tend to be isolated patches in a sea of suburban development or intensive agriculture. Where a link exists to unite patches, it tends to be a narrow strip following a riparian corridor. It should come as no surprise to learn that many native birds are experiencing nosedives in their populations. The hardest hit are the birds that nest in grassland habitats and those that forage on the wing. Incidentally, these birds also feel the strongest direct effects from agriculture.
Services Provided by Grassland Birds
Grassland birds are those resident or migrant birds that depend upon upland grassland habitats to raise their young. Meadowlarks and Bobolinks (both of the Blackbird family) and Northern Bobwhite (a small quail) are examples. In North America, our prime agricultural land is what was traditionally grasslands. Today, the wildlife that depends upon grasslands is struggling to survive amid the agricultural matrix that has replaced their former prairie habitat.
Where they are able to survive, amid hayfields and pastures or along hedgerows, they provide a service to their landowners. For example, the favourite food of Meadowlarks is grasshoppers, followed by beetles, grubs, weevils and caterpillars - all pests to farmers. When the “pests” are unavailable, the birds switch to waste grain or the seeds of noxious weeds. Bobolinks also help control pests by eating the invertebrates that cause crop damage. Furthermore, where livestock are present, Bobolinks feast upon the invertebrates that carry disease or aggravate the herd. Bobwhites eat mainly seeds and leaves, cleaning up waste grain and removing weed seeds. They too switch to invertebrates during the breeding season.
Services Provided by Aerial Foraging Birds
Aerial Foragers are insectivorous birds that catch their food on the wing. Swallows, swifts, and nighthawks are examples of aerial foragers. The preferred habitat for this group of birds is open areas with an abundance of flying insects. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, these birds thrived around family farms; a mix of pastures and fields provided a variety of insects and plenty of space to forage. Several swallow species even abandoned their traditional nest sites, choosing instead to raise their broods within farmers’ outbuildings or nest boxes.
The old-fashioned farmer appreciated these aerial forages since they ate only insects and none of his grain. These birds favoured small beetles, mosquitos, and flying ants. Foraging during daylight, swallows would wheel above the busy farmer, nabbing the insects he stirred up while working below. During dawn and dusk, Nighthawks would take over and forage for the larger flying insects.
The Bad News...
Traditionally, both grassland and aerial foragers co-existed with the old time farmer; grassland birds foraged about within the meadow-like habitat and the aerialists foraged in the air overhead. The family farm was a wildlife-friendly place. Unfortunately, family farms and old-fashioned farmers all but vanished. Industrial farming replaced the diversified farms with intensive monocultures. The former habitat available to grassland birds and aerial foragers plummeted. Apparently, as the diversified family farm faded, so too did a land ethic that could co-existed with wildlife.
According to Bird Studies Canada, aerial foragers show a steeper decline than any other group of birds in Canada. Likewise BSC reports that grassland birds are declining at a sharper rate across North America than most other groups of birds. In southern Ontario, where I live, 32 bird species are listed as Species At Risk. Eight (25%) breed in grassland habitats and six (19%) are aerial foragers. Together, these two groups of birds comprise close to half (44%) of the avian Species At Risk.
… the Good News
The future for grassland birds and aerial foragers is not all grim. Even in our modern times, a back-to-the-land movement is afoot; people are once again feeling the urge to return to traditional farming practices. Diversified farming, permaculture, sustainability, organic growing… if put into practice, these concepts can improve a property’s value as wildlife habitat. Often it’s the landowners who view their land as a living entity that should be sustained or improved who are the very ones that provide refuges for at-risk species
What is more, among modern homesteaders and farmers is a desire to mimic natural grassland ecosystems using livestock and rotational grazing. This practice mirrors the former prairie ecosystems, the traditional haunts of the grassland birds. By moving livestock between paddocks, a farmer allows the plants in the vacant paddocks time to recover. Periodic grazing will even improve the resilience of grasses. Furthermore, manure left by the grazing animals returns nutrient to the soil and builds up its fertility over time.
Rotational Grazing for the Birds
Pastures function as grassland habitat and grazing by livestock can maintain their health and diversity. Where one chooses to follow a rotational grazing scheme, cattle, for example, will selectively forage and graze the grasses in a pasture to varying heights, which keeps some areas as taller vegetation. If a grazing scheme follows a more intensive rotation, some fields could be grazed more heavily than others in a given year, and then allowed to rest the following year. Where rotational grazing is practiced, the lesser-grazed pastures act as a source of biodiversity to replenish neighbouring habitats. These resting pastures are the sites grassland birds seek out to raise their broods and hide from predators. They are also the sites over which aerial foragers catch insects to feed themselves and their broods.
If a landowner is able, leaving some pastures as ungrazed until later in the summer will provide breeding habitat for grassland birds and a ready supply of flying insects for the aerialists. Ideally, if a pasture can rest from April 1st to July 15th, the grassland birds should have the time and the habitat they require to raise a brood. The same is true for hay fields. Haying after mid-July safeguards the majority of the breeding season. To maintain hay quality, since most forage is poor if harvested after mid-July, early-season grazing of the hay crop will postpone forage maturity and keep the hay at an acceptable quality. Furthermore, hay harvesting could be less destructive to wildlife with the following strategies: setting the mower high, beginning in the middle and spiralling outward, using a wildlife flushing bar, and leaving borders uncut.
The plight of grassland birds and aerial foragers is a warning. For those of us who wish to coexist with wildlife and attempt to restore a semblance of the balances that once existed, a new land ethic is necessary. The future for grassland birds apparently depends on the future health and sustainability of livestock grazing. Likewise, the future of aerial foragers depends upon robust insect populations emerging from these pseudo-grasslands, as well as humans willing to share their farm buildings during the breeding season.
The presence of grassland birds and aerial forages indicates a healthy, thriving ecosystem. Modern homesteaders should be gracious hosts and welcome them as neighbours.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and home-schools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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