For bobolinks, savannah sparrows, and other birds that make their nests in hayfields, a delayed harvest can spell the difference between life and death.
Spring for me isn’t complete without a bobolink fix or two. Simply put, I’m addicted to these harpists of the hayfields. That’s why I’m parked on a grassy farm lane in the Taconic Hills of eastern New York, where I live, on a picture-perfect day in early June. The car’s windows and moon roof are open to music bubbling down from an azure sky as three or four male bobolinks swagger overhead and an occasional female flutters up from her hidden nest to check out the commotion. But my immediate attention is focused on a close-by male in smart, skunklike breeding plumage, offset by a prominent straw-colored nape. The handsomest bird in the neighborhood by far, he’s clinging for the moment to a wobbly dock weed, lord of a small piece of this flowing meadow of grasses and forbs.
It’s a challenge to describe the bobolink’s song, a flood of notes that rises higher in pitch as the vocalist hovers over his territory or emotes from a fence or shrubby tree. Besides, who could improve on the eloquence of the great Massachusetts birdman Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866-1954). “It is unique among bird songs,” Bent wrote in his monumental Life Histories of North American Birds, “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.” “Bobolink,” of course, is an imitation of that song, as is “meadow-wink,” prettiest of the bird’s various folk names. Frankly, I’m surprised that the dour taxonomists who rule on avian nomenclature—and tried to get rid of the Baltimore oriole—never changed it to something more typically banal, like “buff-necked blackbird.”
Sadly, the prospect of a spring without a chorus of bobolinks is very real in many places across the bird’s extensive breeding range, which spans the northern United States and southern Canada. The species is by no means endangered. Partners in Flight has estimated the continental population at 11 million, including 1.5 million in North Dakota, where the bobolink is doing very well indeed on more than 3 million acres of grasslands enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program. But over the past 40 years bobolink numbers have declined dramatically across the eastern region of the Breeding Bird Survey, from Wisconsin and Illinois to New England and Canada’s Maritime Provinces.
That’s certainly true in Vermont, where the population has plummeted 75 percent, to just 100,000 birds, since the late 1960s—and is currently declining at a rate of 3.1 percent a year. The fact is, Vermont bobolinks have suffered a double whammy: the widespread loss of their adopted hay-meadow habitat to development and reforestation coupled with intensive modern agricultural practices that make it next to impossible for the birds to complete a successful nesting season.
If there’s a way to slow the species’ decline in the Green Mountain State, it may lie in buying time for bobolinks. Literally. And the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the USDA, is doing just that in collaboration with University of Vermont biologists Allan Strong and Noah Perlut. The researchers, both grassland bird specialists, have focused on developing management practices that balance the needs of birds that depend on agricultural lands for breeding and the farmers who count on those lands for their livelihood. As a result, the NRCS launched a promising new program in 2007 that offers farmers a financial incentive to delay mowing during a window of time when their hayfields could produce a healthy crop of the bobolinks and savannah sparrows that share these cultivated grasslands along with, on some fields, eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows. This past summer 10 fields on eight farms, a total of about 285 acres, were managed for the birds.
David Charron, who raises Black Angus and grows 250 acres of hay for sale in Rutland County, is one of those farmers. When asked why he signed up for the NRCS program, called New Incentives for Grassland Bird Conservation, he replied, “Bobolinks had all but disappeared around here for a time, and I enjoy having them around. If giving up one cutting of 30 acres of hay will help the birds recover, that’s great.”
“It certainly is,” said Jim Shallow, Audubon Vermont’s conservation and policy director. “Private-land stewardship is the key to healthy bird populations in New England [see a “A Tale of Two Habitats,” July-August 2008]. A cost-share program that enables farmers to grow the hay they need and provide for bobolinks is a win-win.”
When discussing bobolinks in New England, it is important to remember two things. Hayfields attracted large numbers of meadow- winks to this storied region in the first place. And the birds need a whole lot of time to launch a new generation.
Bobolinks were essentially tenants of Midwest prairies before colonial settlers began clearing the Northeast forest for agriculture. However, since the early 1900s thousands of the region’s farms have been abandoned and reclaimed by forests or lost to suburban sprawl. Consider this statistic: Vermont had 11,206 dairy farms in 1947 and only 1,200 in 2007. Moreover, as Strong points out, the state’s remaining grasslands have become increasingly fragmented into small patches of marginal habitat with woody edges that attract nest predators.