The Coastal Post - April, 1997

Tragedy On The Wing?

For a full half of the native bird species nesting in America's dwindling grasslands, time is running out

If you're privileged to hear the distinctive call of a Henslow's sparrow-or perhaps the vocal stylings of a bobolink or eastern meadowlark-listen up. According to a sobering new report from the National Wildlife Federation, Americans may not be hearing or seeing these and other grassland-nesting species in the not-so-distant future.

The plight of these and 25 other birds dependent on North America's disappearing grasslands for survival is detailed in the April/May issue of National Wildlife, a bi-monthly publication of the National Wildlife Federation.

Compelling evidence indicates that from Maine to Colorado, many of our grassland bird species are disappearing as fast as the prairie habitats they require for food and nesting sites. The unique listing of grassland bird species "on the edge," compiled by NWF, also includes other familiar names, such as the northern harrier, ring-necked pheasant, western meadowlark, short-eared owl and Savannah sparrow (the full listing appears on the last page of this release).

How serious is the situation? Statistics in the article, "Twilight of America's Grasslands," tell a grim story:

About 99% of our grasslands which once covered 40% of the U.S. have vanished, thanks to early "sod-busting" and later development.

Illinois once had 21 million acres of native prairie; today 2,500 survive, supporting a scant 6% of the state's one-time population of nesting bobolinks.

Of the 28 native bird species listed in the article, only three show increasing number; a full half are in decline continent-wide.

Henslow's sparrow populations have declined by an estimated 93% over the past 30 years; the bobolink is down 37% across its range; the eastern meadowlark is down 53%. In New York, grasshopper sparrows have plummeted by 96%.

"Grassland birds exhibit the most consistent, widespread and steepest declines of any habitat group," says Bruce Peterjohn of the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). And we can blame no one but ourselves, the article points out: agriculture and other land development has vanquished vast stretches of the variegated grassland habitat needed for survival.

Sometimes the birds' end is violent. Earlier and more frequent mowing (of hay and new alfalfa varieties, for example) often turns fields into deathtraps for nesting birds. NWF has sounded the alarm as to how such mowing schedules put nesting mothers and their hatchlings in harm's way.

While the news is mostly bad, there is some hope. For example, conservationists are working with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages our remaining national grasslands, on macro-management plans, and NWF is focusing public attention on our beleaguered grassland ecosystems. But the outlook is not rosy. For these native bird species living on the edge, help can't come too soon.

The nation's largest member-supported conservation group, the National Wildlife Federation unites people from all walks of life to protect nature, wildlife and the world we all share. NWF has educated and inspired families to uphold America's conservation tradition since 1936.

-National Wildlife, April/May 1997