Conserving grassland birds through habitat management | | – Cadillac News

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Updated: September 6, 2022 @ 3:33 am
Cattle pasture left unharvested until after July 1 to provide bird habitat.
Tall grass prairie planting for wildlife habitat.
An Upland Sandpiper.

Cattle pasture left unharvested until after July 1 to provide bird habitat.
Tall grass prairie planting for wildlife habitat.
An Upland Sandpiper.
Grassland birds are an important part of our Michigan ecosystem. Michigan now has an estimated 1% of its original historic grasslands remaining, directly impacting grassland bird populations. Michigan was once covered in a combination of both wet and upland prairies totaling 420,00 acres. Today we are left with 2,000 acres.
Examples of Michigan grassland birds include the following: bobolink, dickcissel, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, henslow’s sparrow, northern bobwhite, killdeer, common nighthawk, horned lark, savanna sparrow, red-winged blackbird, short-eared owl, northern harrier, ring-necked pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse, and upland sandpiper. Each grassland nesting bird species has a unique set of habitat requirements. They prefer areas that are open with grasses and forbs. Forbs are broadleaf plants that are not grass-like and offer value to wildlife. Forbs consists of many types of native plants and flowers. Grasses can be comprised of different combinations of both warm and cool season grasses.
Many grassland birds also have preferences on the amount of unfragmented habitat that they require for nesting and rearing young. Larger grassland blocks that do not have sections fragmented, meaning there aren’t sections split up by woodlots or fence lines without trees or shrubs are preferred. Shape also matters, as most birds prefer square or round plots versus long rectangles.
As farmers and landowners there are practices that can be implemented to help conserve grassland birds. These can include somethings that may not be applicable for everyone, but even installing one bird friendly practice may be highly beneficial. Many landowners with hay or pastures mow hay at some point in the year. Depending on your operation this may be once, twice, or even three to four times annually. “Bird Friendly” mowing practices can be incorporated, mowing can be done from the inside out, which helps push birds towards the edges. This prevents all the wildlife from congregating in the center if you mow in a circular pattern, leaving them no safe exit route. Additionally, start mowing away from any adjacent grasslands (hay or pasture) and move towards them to give the birds and wildlife refuge to easily seek out.
Delayed mowing can be a benefit to grassland birds. Mowing after July 15 gives most grassland birds time to complete one nesting cycle. They typically nest in late May or early June and take an average of 5-6 weeks to rear their young. If forage quality is a concern, leaving hay standing longer may reduce protein content available, cutting earlier than June 1 followed by a 65-day rest cycle will also give birds adequate time to nest. Mowing also includes the use of brush hogs. Only brush hogging a trail instead of the entire field helps retain beneficial habitat for many birds. Or if you need to brush hog a larger area, ensuring you are past the possible nesting period, as well as doing it in sections (vs all at once) provides safer practices for the wildlife present.
Rotational grazing is another great option that producers can add to their toolbox to not only help the birds but improve soil health and forage. Delaying the grazing of one paddock until after July 15 offers birds a safe refuge, another option is to lightly graze sections. Lightly grazing in short durations leaves a higher forage stubble behind, while keeping the residency periods to an average of 3-5 days. After July 1 heavier grazing can be initiated as the birds will have reared their young.
A great option to help protect any wildlife that may inhabit a hay field is to construct a “flush bar” for the tractor. Flush bars originated in the 1930s as a way for farmers to conserve wildlife. A flushing bar is a device that is mounted on the front of a tractor that precedes the implement being used for mowing hay. A flushing bar creates a disturbance in advance of the implement to allow extra time for the nesting bird to flush, avoiding injury or death.
Hanging chains from the flush bar that are barely above the ground should also help initiate movement from the wildlife. A flush bar not only saves grassland birds that can fall victim to the hay mower, but fawns, turkeys, small mammals, and other game birds are aided as well. This will not save the nests of birds, but allows the adults to fly away unharmed to reestablish a new nest.
Consider leaving refuge area patches, or uncultivated land that are left specifically for birds. These can be areas adjacent to a hay field or pasture. Planting warm season native grasses is another great option for many producers. Even small sections planted into perennial native warm season grasses will provide needed habitat and food sources for many birds. Ensuring you are planting a native species helps provide hardiness and less susceptibility to pests in the stand. Prescribed burning is used to enhance existing stands. Planning prescribed burns outside of the critical nesting period is also a beneficial practice to adopt for wildlife conservation.
Grassland birds contribute greatly to ecosystem biodiversity. Their habitats aid in improving water quality and watershed health. The enhancement of habitat on your land can benefit both birds and you in the short and the long term. Please contact your local resource professionals at your local conservation district for more information.
Brandi Mitchell is the MAEAP Technician for Osceola-Lake Conservation District. For more information contact her at 231-465-8005, or stop by the Osceola-Lake Conservation District at 138 W. Upton, Suite 2, Reed City.

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