On a Farm

Photo © Chesapeake Bay Program

Bumper Crop

The earliest, and arguably the most widespread, impact that humans have had on birds is the conversion of habitat into agricultural use. Despite the far-reaching changes that modern intensive agriculture has wrought, many birds are still able to utilize farmlands to meet some of their needs. Waste grain is consumed by wintering waterfowl, orchard fruits are relished by summer songbirds, and cereal crops attract blackbirds, crows, and sparrows. Raptors, like Barn Owl and American Kestrel, can nest successfully on farms when prey abundance is high.

Barn Swallow

A Barn Swallow finds some nesting material.

Photo © Enola-Gay

According to the 2007 National Resources Inventory, there are 357 million acres of cropland and 119 million acres of pastureland in the United States. As of April 2013, about 27 million acres were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a national program that provides farmers with economic incentives for the restoration of grassland habitat on environmentally sensitive lands with a cropping history. Waterfowl, grassland birds, and game birds continue to rebound in the reestablished habitat of these CRP lands.

Western Kingbird

The Western Kingbird is a bird of open country, often seen catching insects around pastures.

Photo © Mark Summers

The Birds and the Bees

Agricultural lands can support a wide variety of bird species, often forming the matrix for smaller suitable habitat patches 1. However, the fragmentation of habitats disrupts key ecological processes, such as gene flow and natural disturbances 2, and oversimplified systems always affect biodiversity. One of the drivers of habitat simplification is the use of pesticides to reduce insect abundance. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 50 pesticides currently in use are known to cause bird die-offs. David Pimentel of Cornell University estimates that about 72 million birds die every year as a direct result of pesticides applied to agricultural lands 3. Let’s not forget that birds were the original pest-management experts, and new research from Costa Rican coffee farms indicate that birds provide ecosystem services valued at US $120-310 ha/year in the form of pest control 4. Birds can help reduce pests, if farms take steps to conserve birds on their property.

Bees are an important provider of ecosystem services, yet they may be even more at risk than birds. A recent study of honey bee pollen detected 35 different pesticides and high fungicide loads in pollen samples from around the U.S. (the average pollen sample had 9 kinds of pesticides in it). No samples were without pesticides, even though most bees collected more pollen from nearby weeds and wildflowers than from crops 5. Exposure to combinations of pesticides can have synergistic effects that are more toxic than exposure to any single pesticide, which puts pollinators at an even greater risk. That is sure to leave a bad taste in your mouth!

Green Acres

Studies have shown that, in intensively farmed lands, generalist species can persist and even become pests, but most specialist bird species decline sharply, even becoming entirely extirpated. Simple agricultural practices can often help reduce the threats faced by birds living on our agricultural lands.

Primary Nesting Season Dates and Durations

Photo © USDA Farm Service Agency Conservation Reserve Program

Techniques like conservation buffers, delayed harvest, or nontoxic pest management (among others) can attract high bird densities and provide substantial benefits to birds in intensive agricultural landscapes. From the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative 6, here are ten simple steps farmers can take:

  • Leaving crop stubble through winter
  • Delaying hay mowing until July 4th, and mowing around known nests
  • Reducing insecticide use
  • Protecting streams, ponds, and wetlands from livestock trampling, and maintaining wetlands for wildlife
  • Leaving 5% of the farm as non-cropped wildlife habitat, perhaps as native prairie
  • Growing several crops (3-5) of varying heights in a field at the same time
  • Incorporating cover crops in your rotations
  • Practicing no-till or conservation tillage methods
  • Leaving turn rows planted, unsprayed and unharvested as winter food plots
  • Creating buffer strips and mowing about 1/3 of them every year (where strips won’t interfere with farm operation)

  • Snow Geese

    Thousands of Snow Geese descend upon a freshly-plowed grain field.

    Photo © Robinsegg