• Donald Attwood

Grassland birds


Eastern Meadowlarks are an iconic grassland species, one that is becoming scarce due to loss of habitat in Canada and the United States.

On the western edge of Saint-Lazare, there’s a gravel road called Chemin du Fief. It passes by perhaps a dozen grassy fields, some attached to horse farms and mown now and then for hay. This year, at least, half these fields remained uncut through the first of August.

This sort of benign neglect is good for grassland birds like meadowlarks. As a neophyte birder, I didn’t know until recently the discoveries to be made along that road. When I asked an experienced birder if she had ever seen meadowlarks in this region, she suggested I visit Fief. I drove there one morning in mid-June and saw three once common but increasingly rare species: Eastern meadowlarks, American kestrels, and Bobolinks.

Meadowlarks are an iconic species for grassland habitats. About the size of robins, their plumage is mostly brown except for a bright yellow breast with a black chevron. Meadowlarks forage for insects and nest in the grass. The crucial question along Fief is whether they have time to build their nests, lay eggs, incubate them, and raise their chicks before the fields are mown for hay. This year, some have fared well.

In recent decades, the North American population of Eastern meadowlarks has declined by 89 per cent due to loss of habitat. For grassland birds in general, the loss has been over 50 per cent. Most of these birds breed (or try to breed) on private lands, so ranch and farm conservation practices have become essential to their survival. Old livestock pastures and hayfields were good for them but in Quebec, as elsewhere, small mixed farms have given way to intensive corn and soybean cultivation with heavy machinery. Pastures have become scarce, while hayfields are often mown in early summer, destroying nests.

American kestrels are beautiful little falcons. Not strictly grassland birds, they hunt grasshoppers and mice along woody edges and open fields; they even hunt insects attracted to the night lights at baseball parks. Thanks to the loss of grasslands and the heavy use of pesticides to control insects, kestrels are also getting scarce.

And likewise for Bobolinks. I found nine of these birds perched in hedges along the sides of a grassy field. The males during breeding season are extraordinary. Though I’d never seen them before, I recognized them immediately. A bit smaller than robins, they are mostly black with pale patches on the backs of their heads, shoulders, and rumps. That is, they’re light above and dark below, unlike many birds, mammals, frogs, and even fish. When other birds are seen from above, their darker colours blend with the colours of the earth; when seen from below, their lighter colours blend with the sky. Bobolinks are the reverse. Is there a reason why penguins dress according to fashion while Bobolinks wear their tuxedos backwards?

Among songbirds, Bobolinks are impressive migrants. Come August-September, they head south to the rice fields of Argentina, a distance of roughly 20,000 km. Youngsters born this summer will make that immense journey through territories they’ve never seen to a winter home that is alien. Bobolinks prefer to migrate at night and can navigate by the stars. They can also sense the earth’s magnetic field, helping them navigate in cloudy weather.

Like meadowlarks, Bobolinks moved into Quebec over the last century or two, as forests were cleared for farming. Now they are rapidly declining across the continent and officially designated as ‘Threatened’ in Canada. Their chances improve wherever hayfields are left uncut until late summer. Alas, this year, bird watchers reported that a hayfield operated by the McGill University farm in Sainte-Anne-de-Belleue was mown in mid-June, destroying the nests of many Bobolinks. In the words of one long-time observer, “We have been monitoring this field for years and the farm people regularly put the value of the hay over the breeding success of vulnerable birds.”

The first cutting could have been postponed until the end of July, but the farm managers preferred to reap more value from the hay. This is a classic example of putting short-term monetary gain ahead of other values. Universities embody the more enduring values; that’s why they are subsidized by our taxes. With higher values at stake, one expects more of a great university. Ironically, the full name of the unit located on McGill’s Macdonald campus is the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Do the environmental scientists condone putting additional pressure on a threatened species?

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