Grassland birds are in trouble. As the grassland habitat needed for nesting and rearing their young continues to disappear, birds such as the Eastern Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink found here in the Southeast are declining in numbers. So what can we do to help? Well, the good news is that the agricultural grasslands found throughout this region, such as hayfields, can provide the habitat these birds need to thrive with some simple management practices..
Ideally, hayfields should be mowed outside of the nesting season, which generally occurs from April to August. This prevents nests from being destroyed and ensures fledged young are developed enough to fly away. However, for economic reasons mowing often needs to occur during this period. If this is the case for you, consider implementing some or all of the following practices to contribute to the protection of birds and other wildlife who utilize this grassland habitat:
Practice rotational mowing. Maintain unmowed patches for wildlife habitat between areas being mowed and rotate which sections are mowed and unmowed each year. The size of mowed/unmowed sections should be determined based on your needs and field size, but remember that larger unmowed areas provide more wildlife habitat! For more info check out page 5 of this USDA leaflet:
Aim high! Set your mower as high as possible. However, even 4-8” off the ground can help save the lives of many grassland birds and other wildlife.
Leave uncut border fields. To allow for sufficient bird and wildlife cover allow a 10+ foot strip of hay to remain on the border of the field. This provides food along with nesting, escape, and brood cover. A wider border leads to less predation of nests.
Mow from the inside out. By mowing from the field center outward you can provide cover for birds as they escape to the edges of the field and prevent them from getting trapped in the center of the field during mowing.
Reduce mowing speed. This practice aids in giving birds the time to react and escape during a hay harvest.
Avoid night mowing. Birds are less likely to try to escape from the area being mowed during the night.
Use a flushing bar. This horizontal bar, attached in front of the blades of harvesting equipment, has chains that hang down and drag through the field to scare wildlife away from danger. This primarily helps to protect adult birds.