Ep. 21 - A Pain in the Grass: Restoring Grassland Bird Habitat

Grasslands birds and the habitats they depend on are some of the most threatened components of our North American landscape. But take heart! Because people like this month's guest co-host, Kyle Webster, are working to restore and maintain grasslands for the birds (and other organisms) that require them. As a member of New York State Parks's environmental field team, Kyle works to use the latest research to understand and improve the management of these critical habitats. Join Bill and Kyle (Steve's still somewhere in the Midwest) as they discuss birds, burns, and conservation biology.

This episode was recorded on Sept. 17, 2017 at the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, NY. Special thanks to Kyle Webster, New York Works Project Coordinator, for being so generous with his time and expertise, and to his boss, Whitney Carleton, New York Natural Resource Steward Specialist for the Finger Lakes Region, for contacting us and making this episode a reality.

 Notes / Mistakes

1. Near the end of the episode, Kyle went over different ways to express support for what he and the other members of his team are doing. After recording, his boss requested that leaving a comment through the NY State Parks website is a great avenue:  https://parks.ny.gov/about/contact-us.aspx , as well as contacting the Regional Director,  Fred Bonn (Fred.Bonn@parks.ny.gov).

2. A few times in the episode, Bill refers to “warm-stem” and “cool-stem” grasses. These are not new varieties of grasses; Bill just misspoke. He meant to say “warm-season” and “cool-season”. D’oh!

3. Bill mentioned early in the episode that he would provide info on how to participate in the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). Near the end of the episode, he provided some contacts for participating in citizen science, but he neglected to mention that one of the websites, http://www.americanornithology.org/content/citizen-science, is the site to visit for a link to the BBS. You can also visit the BBS site directly at https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/

4. Kyle mentioned the FORCES program, but he didn't mention what the "C" stood for - Friends Of Recreation, Conservation and Environmental Stewardship.  Check out the program here: https://parks.ny.gov/environment/forces.aspx

5. Bill also mentioned that he would follow up with his research into the Farm Bill report. So far (as of Sept. 30, 2017), he has not heard back from the publishers of the report he talked about in the episode.

6. Ganondagan (the site where we recorded this episode) is not the first NY state park where a burn has taken place, but it is the first prescribed burn put on solely by the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. 

7. Kyle and his boss, Whitney Carleton, wanted to point out that there is no written evidence that the Seneca burned specifically at Ganondagan. Seneca people as a whole did use prescribed burning, however, and it is highly likely they used those methods at the site. Mike Galban, curator of the museum at Ganondagan, provided the following quote:

1655 Adriaen Van der Donck (New Netherland)

''the Indians have a yearly custom (which some of our Christians have also adopted) of burning the woods, plains and meadows in the fall of the year, when the leaves have fallen, and when the grass and vegetable substances are dry . Those places which are then passed over are fired in the spring in April.

This . . . is done for several reasons: First to render hunting easier, as the bush and vegetable growth renders the walking difficult for the hunter, and the crackling of the dry substances betrays him and frightens away the game. Secondly, to thin out and clear the woods of all dead substances and grass, which grow better the ensuing spring. Thirdly, to circumscribe and enclose the game with in the lines of the fire, when it is more easily taken, and also, because the game is more easily tracked over the burned parts of the woods.

The bush burning presents a grand and sublime appearance. On seeing it from without, we would imagine that not only the dry leaves, vegetables and limbs would be burnt but that the whole woods would be consumed here the fire passes, for it frequently spreads and rages with such violence, that it is awful to behold and where the fire approaches houses, gardens and wooden enclosures, then great care and vigilance are necessary for their preservation, for I have seen several houses which have recently been destroyed, before the owners were apprised of their danger.

Notwithstanding the apparent danger of the entire destruction of the woodlands by the burning, still the green trees do not suffer. The outside bark is scorched three or four feet high, which does them no injury, nor the trees are not killed”

8. Finally, Bill mentioned that he would provide the information on mowing/haying schedules if you want to manage for grassland birds. Here’s an excerpt of the information from http://ny.audubon.org/conservation/managing-habitat-grassland-birds:

Time mowing and hay-cutting to allow young grassland birds to escape – nests, eggs, and flightless young of ground-nesting grassland birds are obviously vulnerable to the tractor wheels and mowing equipment. The following mowing/haying dates are ranked in order of value to breeding grassland birds from highest to lowest:

1.     After 20 August only.

2.     Once before 20 May, and once after 20 August.

The following options will allow only limited successful breeding:

3.     Once before 1 June.

4.     After 20 July only.


http://www.ganondagan.org/environmental-team - Information on the team that Kyle works for – the Environmental Field Team of NYS Parks Finger Lakes Region – including contact info.

http://www.ganondagan.org/ - for information on the Ganondagan State Historic Site, including public programs and tours




Works Cited

Brown, Lucille J., and Joseph J. Nocera. "Conservation of breeding grassland birds requires local management strategies when hay maturation and nutritional quality differ among regions." Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 237 (2017): 242-249.

Gorzo, Jessica M., et al. "Using the North American Breeding Bird Survey to assess broad-scale response of the continent's most imperiled avian community, grassland birds, to weather variability." The Condor 118.3 (2016): 502-512.

Jarzyna, Marta A., et al. "Synergistic effects of climate and land cover: grassland birds are more vulnerable to climate change." Landscape ecology31.10 (2016): 2275-2290.

Lituma, Christopher M., and David A. Buehler. "Minimal bias in surveys of grassland birds from roadsides." The Condor 118.4 (2016): 715-727.

McCauley, Lisa A., et al. "The future demographic niche of a declining grassland bird fails to shift poleward in response to climate change." Landscape Ecology 32.4 (2017): 807-821.

Norment, Christopher. "On grassland bird conservation in the Northeast." The Auk 119.1 (2002): 271-279.

Shaffer, Jill A., and Deborah A. Buhl. "Effects of wind‐energy facilities on breeding grassland bird distributions." Conservation Biology 30.1 (2016): 59-71.

Thompson, Sarah J., et al. "Grassland birds demonstrate delayed response to large‐scale tree removal in central North America." Journal of applied ecology 53.1 (2016): 284-294.

Image of Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna): ©Alan Murphy/BIA/Minden Pictures