Vermonters are trying to save last refuge of grassland birds

July 1, 2019 GMT

SHELBURNE, Vt. (AP) — A simple change to a farmer’s hay cutting schedule in Vermont could be the key to saving families of birds from extinction.

Researchers are working with Vermont landowners to preserve some of the last vital habitats available for grassland birds, like the Bobolink, Savannah Sparrow and Meadow Lark.

Armed with data that shows an early hay cut can help the birds more successfully reproduce, places like Shelburne Farms are managing prime bird habitat to protect the species while also producing feed for their cows.

Noah Perlut, associate professor and chairman of the Environmental Studies program at the University of New England has studied these grassland birds for the last 18 years.


While working for the University of Vermont he made a ground-breaking discovery: If farmers cut hay early and wait 65 days before a second cut, the birds have enough time to breed and raise their young.

That simple step coupled with in-depth research about each bird could push back on a decades-long population decline.

“The idea is to figure out who the bird is and follow that bird to see what happens to it,” Perlut said. “Then we tell the landowner the story of that specific bird, and these stories we try to connect to the human condition.”

In Vermont, the Henslow’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Sedge Wren and Upland Sandpiper are considered endangered or threatened by the Fish and Wildlife Department.

Soon the Meadowlark may be added to the list, Steve Parren, Wildlife Biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife said.

The Bobolink isn’t listed in Vermont as being endangered or threatened, but have been in steady decline, Perlut said.

Throughout the 18 years of research Perlut has found only 50 meadowlark nests among around 2,700 grassland bird nests divided among the species in Vermont that’s cause for concern.

“That is a reflection of just how few there are here,” he said.

Since the 1980′s Bobolink populations have been declining by 3 percent a year because their habitats have been destroyed, Perlut said.

Grassland birds aren’t native to Vermont — they used to call the Midwest and prairies home. Now there is little hope of returning to those lands which is why they have landed in Vermont, Perlut said.

The only problem is the majority of the lands in the state are privately owned, largely for agriculture, which destroys the grasslands, he said. So Vermonters need to focus on doing what they can to help the birds.


“I would love to see Bobolinks restored to the Midwest, but until that happens, we have to be the stewards of their genetics here,” he said. “Otherwise we’re just going to wipe them out.

A delayed field cutting system is difficult to enforce or mandate across the state as every field and farm has different needs and priorities.

May 15 is the ideal date for farmers to cut by for these birds, Perlut said.

There is a chance to partner with farmers and conservationists to make sure everyone wins, he said.

“The problem with cutting in June is the birds have put a lot of work into their nests at that point and it may be too late to move,” he said.

Perlut and his team of researchers monitor all the different grassland birds in the area equally, but special attention is given to the Bobolink because of their unique looks, he said.

There are other programs, like the Bobolink project that pays field owners and farmers to delay cutting, which is another great tool, Perlut said.

The Bobolink project, headed up by the Massachusetts Audubon, is a regional program which at its peak has been able to save about 1,000 acres of grasslands across New York and New England, he said.

Perlut’s research led Shelburne Farms to change the schedule the farm mows and hays, as the importance of their lands became apparent, farm manager Sam Dixon said.

“Every time you take a cutting of hay it just wipes the birds out,” he said.

The Bobolinks travel three days straight from the rice fields of Argentina to make their summer home in many Vermont fields including Shelburne Farms.

Dixon and Perlut worked together to create a system that balanced the farming needs while managing the vital habitat needed for the birds.

With over 1,000 acres of grasslands, Shelburne Farms is an ideal place for these birds to nest, Perlut said. Having just this one farm use a delayed cutting system has a huge impact to preserve the species, he said.

By allowing the grass and hay to stay taller longer, for years now, generations of Bobolinks have been tracked flying back to the same fields in Vermont from their native Argentina which is the ideal outcome, Perlut said.

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com