A healthy grassland habitat says so much about the environment, and grassland birds are just a small part of a big picture. I love these birds and the habitat they live in, but it’s disappearing way too fast. Find out 10 key steps to take to help preserve habitat for grassland birds and wildlife.
Preserving Beautiful Grassland Birds – 10 Key Steps
I remember telling my parents when I first discovered I had Bobolinks in my hayfield. They commented that they used to hear them and Meadowlarks all of the time when they were younger.
Now? Hardly ever.
I thought that was so very sad and unfortunate, and I went on a personal mission to protect the grassland birds nesting in my pasture and hayfield.
I live around many farmers, so I understand the mindset of harvest. Still, if just one more person manages and preserves a grassland habitat, it adds up, and conservation begins.
I will include many resources in this article for certifying your area and even organizations who pay farmers to hold off on mowing their hay. So let’s dive in and help save these incredible birds and all of the beautiful nature that lives in a grassland ecosystem.
Do you know your grassland birds?
Before I start with our key points on protecting, conserving, and providing habitat for our amazing grassland birds, I want to refresh you on these beautiful birds.
The Bobolink is one of my favorite grassland birds. They sound like R2D2 when they fly over their fields. They have on a backward tuxedo with a yellow cap on the back of their head. They are stunning.
I love our native sparrows! The types who love fields include:
- Savannah sparrows
- Grasshopper sparrows
- Field sparrows
- Song sparrows
- Chipping sparrows (nearby)
- Henslow’s sparrows
Another favorite is the gorgeous Eastern (& Western) Meadowlark. Their simple songs make me smile, and their stunning bright yellow breasts and markings will make you look twice!
I adore the look of the Horned Larks. Their little “horns” of feathers make them easy to identify, along with the pretty yellow and markings they have. Included in this are other larks that live in your area.
The Dickcissel might have a funny name, but it is a pure treat to see! The markings and colors on this little bird are beautiful, and you can often see the male singing on a tree limb or wire.
Tree, Barn, and even Cliff swallows make nests near an open field, as do Bluebirds, Purple Martins, Kingbirds, and Eastern Pheobes. They will acrobatically fly over the fields catching insects.
There are so many other birds like bobwhites, grouse, upland sandpipers, and prairie chickens, and other songbirds not mentioned.
Besides grassland birds, much wildlife utilizes and thrives from grasslands, pastures, fields, and meadows.
Hawks, owls, and other raptors hunt over them; numerous beneficial insects use them, including the Monarch butterfly. Small mammals and deer also use this habitat, as do snakes, nesting turkeys, and other animals.
An increase in grassland birds also means a decrease in garden pests or insects that cause crop/garden damage, as the birds feed on them!
Grassland habitat is so critical to our earth as a whole, and I hope I’m showing you just how much! Now let’s get into preserving this precious, declining land.
1. Practice late-season mowing
Late-season mowing is probably the most important and most crucial tip to help our grassland birds.
Hayfields that get mowed “on time” will kill nearly every baby in every nest and crush any eggs. It is incredibly heartbreaking!
Bobolinks need a minimum of late-July (in the Midwest) for fledglings to get away from the machinery by running. All other birds and mammals need close to that same amount of time, yet most farmers try to cut their hay in June or earlier.
You can encourage landowners by educating them on grassland birds and their steep decline, or partnering with organizations like the Grassland Birds Initiative (through Audubon), Grassland Bird Trust, The Bobolink Foundation, and others you can research.
Or look into wonderful organizations like The Bobolink Project who pay landowners to hold off on their first mowing. This will allow grassland birds and families of small mammals to raise their babies before farming equipment comes through and kills them.
Remember, this farming equipment will kill nearly every egg, baby, or too-young fledgling if it comes through too early.
Ideally, my husband and I wouldn’t have to cut our hayfields for hay. But we have two horses and need hay. Thankfully, I have an understanding husband, but I refuse to have our hay cut before the recommended time. I watch diligently through binoculars, looking for the signs of fledglings.
I’m sure it’s not a perfect system, but I’m confident that most (or all!) get out of there with their precious lives.
Also, know this, if these hay fields are for cows? They usually don’t mind hay that is cut later in the season. Even horses will pick through it ok.
Either way, saving grassland habitat through late-season mowing is crucial and an essential step.
2. Try rotational mowing
Rotational mowing is close to the same thing as late-season mowing, but I still wanted to include it.
Rotational mowing allows the landowner to mow all year, except April-August. This allows for a safe breeding season.
3. Establish native grasses beneficial to wildlife
Native grasses benefit wildlife by providing seeds to eat and native insects who also prefer these grasses.
Having a variety of native grasses will benefit wildlife year-round. If your summers are hot, the warm-season grasses will continue to thrive, providing cover, food, and a breeding area.
Examples of cool-season grasses are:
- Canada wild rye
- Virginia wild rye
Examples of warm-season grasses are:
- Big Bluestem
- Little Bluestem
- Indian grass
- Eastern gamagrass
There are probably other grasses you can include, depending on your area and growing zone.
Many fields, especially those catered to livestock or hay, have plenty of introduced Timothy grass, quack grass, and Orchard grass as well. This is fine, and wildlife will use it, but adding native grasses will benefit the area as a whole.
Important to note that all native wildflowers are perfect and beneficial for grassland habitats!
4. Remove non-native growth
By removing non-native growth, I’m not referring to the grasses, but things like bushes and non-native trees.
First, you are trying to create a grassland habitat, so really, any newly growing tree needs to be moved.
If they are native, I dig them up when they are small and transplant them. But using our fields for horses off-season and a late-mowed hayfield in season doesn’t allow for overgrowth of much.
You’ll want to remove the fast-spreading multiflora rose and bull thistle (native thistle is excellent and also a host plant for several species of butterflies!). Both of these are picky plants, as is common teasel.
There are some nice lists out there that will show you what is invasive. It pays to do a little research, as some species can be confusing or resemble beneficial, native species.
And then, quite frankly, some aren’t even worth messing with if they don’t spread and are very few in your fields. Use your best judgment.
5. Mow every couple of years if not in use
If you don’t use your grassland for livestock or hayfields, I recommend mowing every couple/few years to keep it a grassland habitat.
As much as I love trees, shrubs, and other growth for soon-to-be woods, the plan here is to keep it a grassland. Again I feel it’s important to mention that I transplant most native trees and shrubs if I can.
It’s essential not to mow during nesting season, and quite honestly, I wouldn’t even mow in the fall. I like to leave the weeds all winter long, so birds and small mammals have food to eat.
The best time to mow, in my opinion, is very early spring, before bird migration happens and before new growth.
6. Don’t allow new trees to encroach grassland area
I’ve briefly touched on this, but if you want a grassland habitat, then make sure you don’t allow new trees to encroach the area.
I say “new trees” because if there are mature trees on the property, please DO leave them.
Most grassland birds will pass over an area with too many trees in the fields they need an open area.
Move the native trees to a more desired area and use the invasive ones for firewood or bonfires.
7. Never use chemicals
If you want any kind of life at all and any kind of balanced diversity, never ever use chemicals of ANY kind.
NONE of them. EVER.
All they do is destroy everything in their path, ruining the perfect balance that nature achieves on its own, and harm ourselves, our children, and our pets.
Most likely, if an area has a large amount of unbalance, invasive species, or swarms of invasive insects, it had some kind of chemicals used on the land.
Please let nature balance itself and know that no grassland birds, nor anything else, can survive amid chemicals.
8. Keep cats inside
I understand this could be a touchy subject or one open to strong opinions. Still, being one of the biggest animal lovers you will ever meet, I can say that truly, keeping cats indoors is better for them.
People argue that cats love to explore and love being outside. While that may be true to those used to it, I see from the experience of my own cats that they are content and happy indoors.
And they are healthier. Almost no diseases, accidents, predator issues, stolen cats, or cats are getting hit by cars.
And if you want any kind of bird habitat at all, cats that roam around free outdoors, especially those living outdoors as “barn cats,” will honestly harm any bird, fledgling, or nest that tries to survive.
In the United States alone, approximately 2.4 BILLION birds are killed EACH YEAR by outdoor cats.
That statistic alone really speaks for itself. Keep cats safe inside, please.
9. Coordinate with neighbors who may link property
So although I’m on 10 acres, only about 6 of those acres get closed off for hay. Yet our neighbors also have about 5-6 acres they allow us to cut for hay.
This gives us over 10 acres of fields for grassland birds to safely raise their babies. I get Bobolinks, Savannah and Song Sparrows, and others that nest in this area every year.
Surprisingly, last year I even had an Eastern Meadowlark (they usually like at least 15 acres). Not to mention all of the tree and barn swallows and bluebirds (and so much more!) who use the land.
Just think about what could happen with even more acreage linked together to help grassland birds!
You might be surprised how willing a neighbor is, especially if it means they don’t have to mow the area if they usually do. (We mow for our neighbor as it gets cut late-season for hay)
Also, you are educating people on why grassland birds (and wildlife!) are declining and how they can help. It may surprise you to see who is thrilled to help. 🙂
10. Don’t disturb fields during breeding season
If you are a nature photographer like I am, then you love taking pictures of all these cool grassland birds and other wildlife near where you live.
I absolutely love grabbing incredible shots of the Bobolinks and other birds in my fields. Yet if I walked all through the property to try to find them, I would not only disturb them, causing them to possibly leave, but I may step on nests, eggs, or babies.
How tragic is that thought!?
We have a slight path going toward the back of the property, and I’ll continue to walk half-way up that path in early summer. This allows me to see any bird or animal on a path and will enable me to grab just a couple of photos.
Other than that, I’m hardly back there. I truly believe in leaving them alone and allowing them to raise their families.
After a lot of growth, I personally don’t like walking through tall grass anyway.
So until you see them leave, please stay out of the fields.
I really hope this article has ignited a love for grassland birds and their habitat in you! I feel it’s essential to conserve and protect them as much as possible, and I wish you the best of luck with your own endeavors.
If you found this helpful, please share with others! I want to get the word out as much as possible to help our declining grassland birds build back up. Thank you!
What birds do you see in your fields? Please comment below and share with me!