Updated: May 5
April 24, 2021 by Russ Quinn
Sandhills Ranchers Could Help Grassland Bird Population
Population of grassland birds, such as the lesser prairie chicken, have decreased during the last 50 years. Photo by Marcus Miller, courtesy of NRCS.
When you are a fourth grader in the state of Nebraska, you learn all about the state. You learn about the unique unicameral (one governing body) legislature, the state's history and various other state-related items.
It was this way when I was in the fourth grade MANY years ago and it was this way for my kids, including my daughter, Ella, who is in the fourth grade this school year.
As a proud fifth-generation Nebraskan, I have gone on two trips to Lincoln to tour the state capitol in the last five years with my two older kids. A third trip this spring with Ella will mostly likely be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the things you learn is all the state symbols for Nebraska. There is, of course, the state flag, but also the state flower (goldenrod), state tree (cottonwood), state song ("Beautiful Nebraska") and the state bird (western meadowlark).
There is a good reason why the western meadowlark is the state bird -- they are nearly everywhere in the summer in Nebraska. I see them quite regularly when I am checking cows grazing in the pastures on our eastern Nebraska farm.
The Nebraska Sandhills is one of the largest continuous prairies in North America and home to many grassland bird species, including meadowlarks, bobolinks and greater prairie chickens. But the Sandhills are also home to ranchers who are grazing livestock and harvesting hay, a practice that affects the habitat for grassland birds.
Specifically, hay harvest time usually occurs at the same time as the grassland birds' breeding season. Hay harvest can destroy birds' nests and decrease the odds of survival for both the adults and their offspring.
Grassland bird population in North America has declined by 50% in the last half-century, according to a report by the National Audubon Society in 2019. (https://www.audubon.org/…) As part of the ecosystem, these birds serve an important role in grasslands.
The Brandywine Conservancy has found delaying hay harvest until July 15 would allow more birds to finish nesting and increase the survival rates of young grassland birds. (https://www.brandywine.org/…) The issue would be to convince producers to delay hay harvest, because delays decrease the quality of the hay.
This week, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension shared results from a survey it did with 300 landowners in the heart of the Sandhills, in Holt and Cherry counties, about possibly changing when they harvest hay. Nearly 60% said they would likely be willing to delay their hay harvest until July 15. (https://news.unl.edu/…)
The study also revealed that landowners are knowledgeable about local bird species. Those who owned livestock were more likely to say they would delay hay harvest, despite the fact this would lower the quality of the hay.
UNL researchers said the fact that landowners would consider incurring operational losses to promote bird conservation reflects a longstanding tradition of environmental stewardship in the region. Most cattle producers are careful not to overgraze as this would cause much damage to grass plants and soil, and this is especially true in the Sandhills as overgrazing could lead to "blowouts" where the sandy soils could literally blow away.
Convincing ranchers to delay hay harvest could prove to be a way to increase grassland bird numbers in the Nebraska Sandhills. This practice and promoting conservation-based financial incentives offered through federal programs, such as in the farm bill, might persuade landowners who are concerned about the economic impact of delaying their forage harvest, according to UNL researchers.
Here is some not-breaking news by me: Nebraska's ag producers care about the environment. They really do.
They want to be profitable in their ranching/farming operations, but they also work and live in these rural areas. The last thing they want to do is destroy the natural world in which we all live in.
The words to the Nebraska state song "Beautiful Nebraska" sum up why the state's natural environment matters:
"Beautiful Nebraska, peaceful prairieland,
Laced with many rivers, and the hills of sand;
Dark green valleys cradled in the earth,
Rain and sunshine bring abundant birth.
Beautiful Nebraska, as you look around,
You will find a rainbow reaching to the ground;
All these wonders by the Master's hand;
Beautiful Nebraska land.
We are so proud of this state where we live,
There is no place that has so much to give.