Making the Case for Bird-Friendly Farming

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Making the Case for Bird-Friendly Farming

September 30th, 2022

The native grasslands of North America have endured the most human impact of any terrestrial ecosystem in the United States. Over the last century, most of these landscapes have transitioned into working farms and ranches, a change that has resulted in a steep decline in many of the more than 50 species of birds who rely on grasslands for nesting, breeding, and foraging.  

Many of these birds have adapted by using working hayfields and pastures as their nesting grounds, but this adaptation can prove fatal when farmers harvest their hay. Birds like the Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink nest directly on the ground, which makes their nests vulnerable to disturbance from agricultural machinery. A single hay harvest can result in nearly 100% mortality of nestlings. 

In Virginia, a new initiative is working directly with the farmers and ranchers to promote practices on working landscapes that are mutually beneficial for agriculture and grassland birds. 

A demonstration booth at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where VGBI team members spoke with festival attendees about their work.

The Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) teamed up with American Farmland Trust (AFT), Quail Forever, and the Piedmont Environmental Council to form the Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative (VGBI) with the goal of stemming the tide of grassland bird decline while also improving the resiliency of working landscapes.

This partnership aims to construct a more bird-conscious way of working. “With the majority of remaining grasslands in Virgnia currently held in private hands and under agricultural use, the future of grassland conservation has fallen largely on farmers,” said VGBI Coordinator, Justin Proctor. Research from VWL demonstrates that implementing a specific suite of farm management practices can benefit grassland birds, as well as the working farms and ranches they call home. Such practices include restoring native grasses, regenerative grazing, and delaying haying to allow birds time to nest.   

Justin Proctor high fives an attendee of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, where members of the VBGI team talked with folks about their work.

The initiative also encourages peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, incentive payments for implementing bird-friendly practices, and workshops for landowners. These action items make it easier for interested producers to gain the knowledge needed to make their operation more bird-friendly. According to Proctor, the presence of grassland birds also stands to benefit the farmers that accommodate and encourage their occupancy. From insect and rodent control, to seed dispersal and nutrient recycling, birds serve a critical role in the complex food web that supports plant and animal life. An increase in native bird diversity, therefore, can be taken as a harbinger of a resilient and productive operation.   

Mike Sands, owner and operator of Bean Hollow Grassfed farm, reflected on his participation in the VGBI in Grass Roots, a short film created by VWL. “Now there’s no question that this farm is much healthier. It’s been a give and take. What’s perfect for the birds is not perfect for the farm business, and what’s perfect for the farm business is not perfect for the birds,” said Sands.  

Jacob Gilley, manager of the Sustainable Grazing Project at American Farmland Trust and owner/operator of Heaven’s Hollow Farm, agrees with Sands’ analysis of this work as compromise. “A lot of times in agriculture we see environmentalists on one side and agriculture on the other, and it’s really important for us to try to bridge that gap.” Gilley began working on the VGBI team to incorporate more bird-friendly practices on his own farm and on the farms of the producers he works with in the Sustainable Grazing Project.  

Jacob Gilley talks with an attendee of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, where members of the VBGI team spoke with festival attendees about their work.

Gilley is confident that a truly biodiverse operation can not only serve as a haven for wildlife, but also be profitable for the landowner. He notes that this outcome sprouts from an awareness about what kind of practices can be beneficial and how to implement them. “A really biodiverse operation is going to be profitable. I think your mindset, the paradigm shift, is what makes a difference,” said Gilley. 

But one of the most meaningful benefits of participating in the initiative is intangible. The sense of being connected to a larger movement motivates many of the producers, scientists, and researchers who are responsible for pushing this work forward. This feels appropriate, given that the work of the initiative encourages a sense of commitment and concern for beings other than oneself. “The interconnectedness of everything in the world is greater and much more complex than most of us can comprehend. Increased biodiversity and balance are indicative of a healthy planet,” notes Gilley. To recognize this interconnectedness means reckoning with the fact that our fate is tied up with that of birds, bees, and plants. While this can be an uncomfortable reality at first, VGBI is a prime example that when embraced it can lead to community, reciprocity, and shared understanding. And who couldn’t use a bit more of that?