Charlotte Grassland Planning Is For The Birds
By keeping the birds in mind when planning haying, brush-hogging, and property development, landowners can help protect Vermont’s grassland bird species that are suffering from dwindling habitat. That’s the message the Charlotte Conservation Commission is trying to spread via a brochure entitled Grassland Birds in Charlotte: Our Role in Their Future.
Unlike many other Vermont towns, much of Charlotte’s landscape remains unforested and undeveloped today. This gives us a special opportunity to provide safe haven for grassland birds through bird-friendly management practices in our pastures, hayfields, and grassy residential areas.
According to the brochure, grassland birds commonly seen in Vermont include the bobolink, meadowlark, Savannah sparrow, and northern harrier (marsh hawk). Less common species include the upland sandpiper, grasshopper sparrow, sedge wren, horned lark, vesper sparrow, and short-eared owl. These birds make ground nests in grassy areas, which means their numbers are declining as the Vermont landscape changes from farmland to forest and neighborhoods. Another threat to the grassland bird populations is a change in haying practices.
In the 1960s haying began in early July. Today, haying begins in late May in order to capture the higher protein content and thus increase dairy cow production. Hayfields that are cut early are cut more frequently, often in 35-40 day intervals.
While relatively few adult birds are killed by haying machinery, the shorter haying intervals mean they can’t reproduce between harvests. This, along with Vermont’s reforestation trend, has taken a toll on a number of grassland bird species.
In Vermont, between 1966 and 2005 grasshopper sparrows declined by 8 percent per year, bobolinks and meadowlarks by 3 percent per year, and Savannah sparrows by 0.25 percent per year. There are now 94 percent fewer grasshopper sparrows, 69 percent fewer bobolinks and meadowlarks, and 9 percent fewer Savannah sparrows breeding in Vermont.
The brochure details a number of bird-friendly land management practices, including:
• Hay as late as possible. • Pick up cut grass annually or biannually. • Keep open land open. • Plan roads, driveways, houses, and barns along edges to decrease habitat fragmentation. • Plan plowing, seeding, and rotation with a long-term view. • Maximize the length of pasture rotation.
The Charlotte Conservation Commission also recommends a couple of incentive programs offered through Vermont’s Natural Resource Conservation Service that “offset costs associated with combining agricultural production, open-space conservation, and bird-friendly land management.” Those programs are a late-haying cost share program through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and a $100 per acre payment for intensively managed fields. For more information follow the link above or call your local NRCS office.