ELK MOUND — Fifty years ago, meadowlarks were as common as robins on the Wisconsin landscape.
But, like most species of grassland birds, meadowlark numbers are in decline. So when state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bill Hogseth asks a group for a show of hands for who has seen a meadowlark recently, he doesn’t expect to see many hands go up.
That wasn’t the case when he asked a room full of people who graze cattle during a recent Graze River Country’s “Birdsong on the Farm: How Grazing Provides Wildlife Habitat” pasture walk at Doran and Marianne Holm’s organic farm in Dunn County.
“When I ask that question of people who don’t spend a lot of time in grasslands, very few people raise their hands,” Hogseth said. “Meadowlarks were an iconic bird member of the agricultural landscape in the ‘60s.”
Hogseth said breeding-bird survey routes in the state in the 1960s would return results of 25 to 35 meadowlarks in a single morning. That number declined significantly to the single digits by the 21st century.
“A lot of that decline has to do with habitat,” Hogseth said. “Prairies were a big part of Wisconsin’s landscape pre-settlement. This landscape was frequently disturbed, whether it was by herbivores or by fire, and kept forests and woody vegetation at bay.
“You can lose these habitats really quickly just by not disturbing them.”
Hogseth said changes in farming have directly correlated with changes in grassland bird populations, as the classic family farm model of rotations of hay, oats and corn provided good surrogate habitat for grassland birds.
“There’s been a whole scale shift in agriculture over the decades,” said Kevin Mahalko of the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council.
“It’s gone from everybody having at least half their fields as hay grounds to row crops.”
“These birds were able to coexist where there was pasture or where there was hay,” he said. “Those were structurally what they wanted, tall and short grasses, versus the more industrial model of a rotation of more corn and beans.
“These birds tell the story of how our land use has changed since the 1960s.”
Grassland birds need grasslands during the breeding season to get the next generation of the species out into the world. Wisconsin is home to more than 20 species of grassland birds for part of the year.
“We’re not just talking about one bird that’s a conservation priority, we’re talking about an entire community of birds that’s a conservation priority,” Hogseth said.
Hogseth said grassland birds are the fastest declining group of birds in the U.S. According to federal breeding bird surveys taken between 1966 and 2004, grassland bird populations have declined dramatically in Wisconsin and 77 percent of grassland species showed a significant decline.
Grassland birds’ migration from South America to North America has about a 50 percent survival rate, Hogseth said, as they are contending with predators and storms on the flight covering thousands of miles, sometimes over open water for hundreds of miles.
After arriving in Wisconsin, Hogseth said, bobolinks can make 25 to 30 trips from their nest to foraging grounds and back every hour to feed their nestlings. That is after about the same amount of work building their nests over the course of three days and after migrating from Argentina.
“We see birds with their beautiful plumages singing beautiful songs, and we can trick ourselves into thinking they’re gentle, peaceful creatures,” Hogseth said. “But they actually live tough, hardscrabble lives that have a lot of danger and risk involved.
“I try to remind myself when we’re doing conservation that their lives are already hard before you throw on top of that habitat loss and other challenges we throw at them as human beings.”
The Holms’s farm includes 20 acres of woodlands and 85 acres of grassy pastures that can provide grassland bird habitat.
“As a grazier, I think, ‘Well, if we have this grass, maybe we should be allowing some of these interior fields to go a little longer and not be in a hurry to hay them all,’” Marianne Holm said. “It gives you another reason to consider leaving grass alone.”
Hogseth said 80 percent of the land birds such as the eastern meadowlark could find as suitable nesting habitat is privately owned.
“Agencies have been doing all this conservation work to keep birds like this from declining,” Hogseth said. “We can do all the work we want on publicly owned lands, but if 80 percent of the habitat is on private lands, we’re not really moving the needle.
“That’s why what’s happening with grazing projects in the state, I think, is the most critical thing keeping these birds alive.”
Caleb Langworthy, an organic farmer in northern Dunn County, said there are U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service programs available to allow farmers to use practices like delayed haying or cutting hay from the middle out to allow for wildlife escape routes.
“NRCS actively works on private lands, and a big goal of theirs is providing habitat for these birds,” Langworthy said.
Hogseth said another way farmers could make hayfields more hospitable for birds would be to forgo a second cutting of hay. Based on the arrival time of birds like the bobolink to the state, which he said started showing up in the past several weeks, that would allow farmers to get a first crop off before allowing the birds to raise their young.
“I know the first crop is the most important and there’s more nutrition in there,” he said, “but if you could forgo your second crop, it gives birds like the bobolink time to re-nest.”