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Putting Money Where the Birds Nest

By   /  April 30, 2013  /  3 Comments

How important, how valuable, is living in a community that strikes a better balance with Nature? And are communities willing to pay for the services that producers provide to meet that balance?

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Bird on a wire. Bobolink populations are down by 40% because of pressures on grasslands. Intensive mowing leaves no time for young birds to mature long enough to survive.

Bird on a wire. Bobolink populations are down by 40% because of pressures on grasslands. Intensive mowing leaves no time for young birds to mature long enough to survive.

“Ecosystem Services” is a way of describing the benefits farms and ranches provide to their communities on a daily basis.   It defines the open space between towns and suburbs, the watershed protection for everyone downstream, and the habitat for creatures that might find nowhere else to live.  In most cases, producers provide these services free of charge.  But when the business of farming comes up against a particular creature’s needs, some agencies and communities are trying to find ways to pay for the services only the farmer or rancher can provide.

One example of this are the efforts of both the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Bobolink project to pay farmers to adjust the timing of cutting hay to give the Bobolink time to raise it’s young.  Both the NRCS and Swallow are working on solutions that help farmers and ranchers provide the bobolink with what it needs by paying for the use of their hayfields for 65 days.

Bobolink crosses a hayfield.

Bobolink crosses a hayfield.

Birds Needs and Farmers Needs

When their tall grass prairie homes began to disappear, bobolinks moved to hay fields.   They build small cup-shaped nests on the ground in dense vegetation that provides cover as they raise their young over the next two months.  But while hay fields provide good cover initially, the demands of a working farm, mean that that good cover needs to be turned into hay, and suddenly the birds are homeless.

Baby grassland birds need about 60 days to mature. If farmers mow while they are too young to fly, they have a survival rate near zero.

Baby grassland birds need about 60 days to mature. If farmers mow while they are too young to fly, they have a survival rate near zero.

“Today, farms are driven to get two or three or more harvests from their working hayfields and this creates a paradox:  Harvesting intensively can help keep undesirable invasive species out of the fields, and maintain a healthy grassland so critical to grassland nesting birds,” says Stephen Swallow of the Bobolink Project.  “But harvesting during the nesting season, before the eggs have hatched and the young can escape predators, can be devastating.  Sea gulls, for example, commonly follow tractors during the harvest, and within minutes can dive down to consume eggs or flightless young.  And, after a harvest, what the seagulls don’t grab becomes an easy target for predators like foxes or skunks. Overnight, the nests and young are gone.”

Bird in the grass

Just like farmers and ranchers, Bobolinks work hard for a living.  They can fly as much as 12,000 mile on their annual migrations to South America and one bird was documented to have flown over 1,000 miles in a single day.

Helping Farmers Help the Bobolink

Swallow’s Bobolink Project is a collaboration between the Universities of Connecticut and Vermont, and is an effort to encourage communities to get involved in protecting the wildlife that is important to them.  The project is locally based, and supporters’ contributions go to the locations they choose. Supporters can either pledge a set amount, or an amount per field, donating more if more farmers can participate.

Swallow explains that “Farmers then set the lowest amount they can accept to forgo mowing their qualifying fields. The Project negotiates a payment between the amount collected from supporters and the amount needed by the farmers.”  This year the Bobolink project is focusing on the Champlain Valley.  How many farmers can be funded will depend on the donations that come in as of the April 30, 2013 deadline.  (Here’s their donation link.)

The NRCS also has a program to pay farmers not to mow their fields while Bobolinks are busy raising offspring.  To participate in the NRCS program, you must have a hayfield that qualifies as worthwhile grassland bird habitat, including size, shape, and forage species.  You have to agree to finish all haying activities by May 31st, and stay off the field for 65 days after that.  Another alternative is to wait to hay until July. This year, by agreeing to adjust haying time on a 10 or 20 acre or larger portion of a hayfield, you can earn about $90/acre.  (These rates are based on NRCS in Vermont. Payments vary by state. Contact your NRCS office for local payment plans.)

This payment rate is lower than last year’s, and less than what agricultural economists have calculated as worthy compensation. They estimated that cost of losing second cut is about $110-135/acre, and last year, NRCS was offering $110/acre (Vermont rates).  As a result, fewer farmers in Vermont are participating in the project this year.

A pair of Bobolinks. Both parents work together to feed their young.

A pair of Bobolinks. Both parents work together to feed their young.

Can Bobolinks Give More?

Troy Bishopp’s article last week pointed out how useful he finds the birds that live on his pastures.  Like Troy’s Bluebirds, Bobolinks help control pests, eating bugs that may cause crop damage, carry disease, or aggravate the herd. For farmers involved in agritourism, forgoing haying or grazing to boost bird populations, might also bring in more bird watchers as guests.

What’s a Good Balance?

Do the Bobolink’s pest control services, agritourism possibilities and payments from programs like the ones offered by the NRCS and the Bobolink project counter the loss of income from delayed haying? As we consider farm management, how can we choose practices that support ecosystems services while maintaining profitability? What suggestions do you have for your community when it comes to working together to provide “Ecosystem Services?”  We’d like to hear from you about what you think might work, or programs you think are beneficial.


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About the author

Author and editor emeritus

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.


  1. Bobolink Lester says:

    If the Bobolinks are hanging out in a pasture that hasn’t been used yet this summer will the cow chase them off their nest if I let them graze now?

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      While we think cows are smart enough to avoid nests on the ground, if cows graze that pasture they might expose the young to predators. The grass is providing cover to them. Perhaps grazing lightly might allow cohabitation by these two grass-loving species? We’re going to ask an expert.

      • Allan Strong says:

        There actually are records of cows eating eggs and nestlings of grassland birds…so perhaps they are smarter than we think. But, light grazing can be compatible with successful Bobolink nesting. The issue is as much with trampling as with loss of nesting cover. “Light” grazing can be hard to define, but if the cows graze over the entire paddock, there is a good chance at least some of the nests will be destroyed.


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