Eastern meadowlarks used to be common birds in local hayfields. Now they’re on a growing list of field-nesting birds—bobwhite quail, vesper sparrow, American kestrel, and red-winged blackbird—whose numbers have seriously dropped. Now you can drive though the countryside and never see any of them.
In 2015, the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS) launched its Grassland Birds Initiative. The first property to enroll was Claymont Farm. As of this month, a total of nine properties in the Potomac Valley participate, according to PVAS Executive Director Kristin Alexander.
Last summer, I enrolled our two hayfields as designated grassland bird habitat. Until recently, I believed we were encouraging grassland birds by allowing natural vegetation to grow in our fencerows and rock breaks, and mowing only once a year, late in the season. Since enrolling in the Grassland Birds Initiative, I’ve learned this isn’t enough. Studies show that long fence lines of trees, shrubs, and vegetation that separate and constrict open fields offer predators easier access to any birds living in the fields, hampering their nesting success and adding to the problem.
I’ve learned it’s better to let part of the field grow un-mowed for more than one year. PVAS cites a large field in the Steamboat Run area near Shepherdstown as a prime example. They cut some of their hayfields only once a year on a rotating basis, while leaving others uncut for a couple years. Birds nesting there have increased to levels that were never seen when they mowed everything yearly.
Farmers used to let fencerows grow up and would let certain fields lay fallow for a year or two to “rest the soil” and allow nitrogen to build up. Today’s more intensive agriculture requires all the land to be used. This means maintaining “clean” fencerows and applying additional chemical fertilizer to make up for the depleted elements in the soil. This also adds to the expense.
A better conservation practice farmers are now starting to adopt is to sow warm-season grasses in fields they formerly allowed to grow or lay fallow. Native grasses such as big bluestem, Indian grass, fowl manna grass, switchgrass, muhly grass, and Eastern gamma grass can be cut for hay. But, unlike annual cool-season forage grasses, they develop perennial hummocks of vegetation that offer grassland birds year-round protection: hiding places in winter, summer nesting places, and autumn food in the form of seed.
Results of these programs show more field-nesting birds and other wildlife. Fields planted in native warm-season grasses also attract beneficial bees, butterflies, and dragonflies.
Turtles, non-poisonous snakes, toads, and frogs also find more food and places to hide in such fields.
I’m encouraging my neighbors to join us in creating more grassland wildlife habitat. You can improve your own backyard, even if it’s under an acre. Maybe you’re tired of weekly mowing—or of paying somebody else to do it. Instead, you could transform it into a beautiful, more bird-friendly place. Contact PVAS to learn about the Grassland Birds Initiative and about Habitat Certification for smaller properties—a program they launched this spring.
— Doug is an artist, writer, and naturalist living near Shepherdstown. For this piece, he submitted both the photograph and the artwork (courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission).