I was a birder when I lived in Texas, where the wide open spaces made it easy to spot interesting and colorful birds—and when I lived in Maine, where expert birders shared the view of peregrines perched on cliffsides through their spotting scopes. When I moved to the Southeast, though, I told myself it’s hard to birdwatch in woodlands because I can’t see the birds for the trees. That was my excuse, anyway, but I finally got back into the birding business—and realized the importance of farmers’ sustaining migratory birds—at a birding festival on Mother’s Day weekend. Globally, this is a big day for birders—not just a big day but a Global Big Day, when birders worldwide come together to identify as many bird species as possible on one day. The record for that weekend was 327 bird species by one group in the Yucatan region of Southern Mexico.
With the help of a small group of birdwatchers I accompanied, I was able to see, hear and positively identify 37 species within three hours, traveling about 3 miles. We were on a farm—a really big, diversified farm on 2,400 acres owned by the University of Kentucky as a multipurpose research facility. The most interesting aspect of what we saw was the habitat and the birds’ relationship with it.
The farm’s various ecosystems include a few old trees on the edge of a field, unmowed grasslands and paddocks, and streams and ponds with thick, brushy woods along their banks. In recent years, a major emphasis has been placed on water quality, and educational signs explain that stream buffers in the form of “no mow” zones and native vegetation protect the stream banks.
Since the moment I stepped out of the car that morning, raised my binoculars to my eyes and spotted a dozen or so cedar waxwings in a big tree, I have thought about ways farms can help sustain migratory birds.
Take the cedar waxwings, for example. They are no record holders for long migration routes, but they do follow their food source as it is seasonally available. They have a hovering capability that helps them catch insects and pluck ripe fruit from branches. This morning, in my own suburban backyard with a small permaculture food forest in its early phases, I heard then saw about 30 cedar waxwings flocking to our giant pin oak, scattering out to neighbors’ trees and returning. This is the first time I’ve noticed these birds in our yard, but I’ve seen them at an urban park with a pond, where they swooped across to catch insects. The dogwoods and serviceberry in our yard produce some of the waxwings’ favorite fruits. Other good sources include cedar, juniper, hawthorn and winterberry.
Of course, a farmer is usually more concerned with growing food for humans than for birds, but these acts don’t have to compete with one another. There are lots of ways that keeping birds in mind will benefit the land as well as the people, other animals and plants that live on it.
Go Organic—Birds Are Pest-Control Allies
Pesticides may be a quick fix, but consider that migratory birds can be a great ally in pest control. For example, caterpillars make the best baby food for birds. A Carolina chickadee nest could use as many as 9,000 caterpillars in a season. Think about all the bagworms, hornworms and cabbage loopers that our feathered friends naturally control. As a bonus, by choosing birds as your pest control allies, you’ll also be rewarded with birdsong.
The choice to go organic extends to never using rodenticides. In a presentation at the birding festival, a farmer whose silo doubled as a barn-owl roost explained that several years of observing nesting pairs had taught him a great deal about the role birds play in the farm ecosystem. State wildlife agents band the owlets that hatch every spring in the silo. The young typically fledge and find their own territory. By attaching a numbered band to the leg of each owl, agents found where at least one had flown to—North Dakota all the way from Kentucky, a trip of at least 1,000 miles. The sad part is that the bird’s band number was reported because it was found dead. It had died from rat poison. The farmer telling this story had watched his barn owls gorge themselves on voles and shrews that run through his hay fields. The owls often killed more than they could even eat or feed their young. One owl family can eat as many as 3,000 rodents in a year. That seems like a great reason to get rid of the poisons and make space for birds of prey.
Keep Your Potholes
If your land is naturally diverse, keep it that way, especially if you have any wetlands. Converting everything to row crops and forcing the natural design to conform to tractors has affected waterfowl dramatically. According to the National Audubon Society, the pothole region of the Eastern Dakotas, Southwestern Minnesota, North-central Iowa and Eastern Montana are prairie ecosystems with shallow, ephemeral wetlands, and their numbers have decreased drastically. These temporary, seasonal, fishless ponds recharge groundwater, reduce the severity of flooding, and provide water and forage for livestock.
Approximately half of North America’s waterfowl pass through this region on migratory routes. The critical potholes are rich feeding grounds for migratory birds, full of invertebrates. Keeping the potholes provides migratory bird habitat for at least 300 species and also reduces soil erosion.
Consider Your Farm A Corridor
Fragmentation of habitat interrupts the flow of the natural movement of wild animals across the landscape. Migratory birds can fly across some of these interruptions, but they still have to stop, rest, eat, drink and mate on a regular basis. Just as a worldwide effort to support pollinators, especially the monarch butterfly, has resulted in thousands of way-station flower gardens, the need is also great to support migratory birds along their annual treks. Farms are perfectly poised to provide that support.
In the book Rewilding Our Hearts, Marc Bekoff writes, “When rewilding projects create these corridors on behalf of nature, they inevitably reconnect diverse and sometimes fragmented human communities as well.”
Perhaps the act of looking, listening and tuning in to the birds on Mother’s Day morning created a corridor in my mind that will help me be more aware of how my gardening practices are connected to the bigger picture. On the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s website, the team captain of the Global Big Day record holders commented on the coordinated effort that brought 17,000 birders out on the same day to report their observations.
“Global Big Day presents us with a vignette of what is possible when people and organizations work together focusing on their respective areas of expertise and together accomplishing what could never be done alone,” he said.
Today, my “farm” is a small yard with native fruit and nut trees. But it’s also a landing pad for weary travelers and probably a breeding site so their beautiful babies can continue to sing next spring. I hope they find more refuges where they need them as they continue on their travels.