Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Don't Foreclose on the Bobolink

            What is black, white and yellow, chirps like R2-D2, has been eaten as a delicacy, shot at in Argentina, and nests right here in our Vermont fields after a 6000-mile night migration?

            It’s the bobolink.            

            The bobolink, with its ebullient song that has been likened to music that flows like bubbling champagne and to the voice of a Star Wars droid, was heralded by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878), who addressed the songbird more formally in his poem “Robert of Lincoln”:     

Merrily swinging on brier and weed,

Near to the nest of his little dame,

Over the mountain-side or mead,

Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:

Bob-o’link, bob-o’-link,

Spink, spank, spink;

Snug and safe is that nest of ours,

Hidden among the summer flowers,

Chee, chee, chee.

            In the Songbird Hall of Fame, the bobolink that comes to Vermont makes one of the longest migrations, some 12, 000 miles round trip, to and from its winter home in the grasslands of Bolivia and Argentina. 

         Rice farmers in South America routinely shoot at bobolinks as agricultural pests.  Ironically, though, these grassland birds are considered beneficial to U.S. and Canadian agriculture because they eat the very insects that are harmful to crops. 

             Sadly, in Vermont, the bobolink population has declined 50 percent in the last 40 years.                     

    Why, and what, if anything, can be done? 

            After consulting Dr. Rosalind Renfrew, who is studying bobolinks in their wintering ground in Bolivia on behalf of the Vermont Center for Ecosystem Studies, in White River Junction (http://vtecostudies.org/), I discovered there are measures we can take right here in Vermont to bolster this songbird’s chances of survival.

            In early June, bobolinks lay clutches of 4-6 eggs in open-cup nests built into depressions at the base of clumps of grass in hay fields and meadows. 

            This means that any cutting of hay fields prior to July 4 is likely to interfere with both egg incubation and fledgling of young bobolinks. 

            While late mowing helps nesting birds, it often results in nutritional losses in the hay.  To offset this, the Environmental Quality Incentives program Grassland Bird Initiative (EQIP) offers eligible farmers financial incentives to mow prior to June 2, before nests are established, and then defer mowing for 65 days.  The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) also offers a similar program.

            Altering mowing patterns can also be beneficial.  For example, when farmers mow first in areas near structures where birds are not likely to nest survival rates increase.  Further, mowing from the middle of the field out enables more birds to escape the mowing blade. 

            It’s also recommended that when birds are observed flying in a particular area that this patch is left until the next mow.  Raising the blade to six or more inches may also reduce nest destruction.  Ironically, though, any young birds that may survive are more vulnerable to predators. 

            Since bobolinks will return to a field where they have nested successfully year after year (and they tend to nest in clusters), it is important that consistency be maintained.  This means that when farmers forego early mowing on a field that they repeat this year rather than change the mowing cycle in a couple of years.

            In the midst of a sagging economy, with prevailing foreclosures, budget cuts and layoffs, is it asking too much to mobilize on behalf of this spirited songster that gobbles up insect pests and, amazingly, migrates by reading the sun and stars, Earth’s magnetic fields and polarized light humans can’t even see?           

            I hope not.  A friendly summer welcome in Vermont would go a long way toward making Bryant’s words “snug and safe is that nest of ours” a reality. 

            During a recent afternoon walk, I saw a male bobolink winging over knee-high grass.  I paused to appreciate his bubbly, reedy song.  And with apologies to G. K. Chesterton:  “Anyone who wouldn’t enjoy the song of the bobolink wouldn’t enjoy heaven.”

For information on WHIP and EQIP incentive programs to benefit bobolinks and other grassland birds contact Toby Alexander, Natural Resources Conservation Service, (802) 951-6796, ext 229.