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Saving bobolinks

I can’t say that I’m a regular reader of Ontario Beef magazine, but an article in the February 2012 edition by Gerald Rollins caught our attention. Rollins, a beef farmer and director on the board of the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, may well be affected by certain elements of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

More specifically, he understands well that pastures and hayfields provide important habitat for two grassland bird species: bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks. Both of these birds are on the province’s endangered species list and their declines can be linked to habitat loss and habitat disturbance http://onnaturemagazine.com/songs-of-the-bobolink.html.

We’ve been working closely with the farming community on ways to protect bobolinks. These striking little birds nest in hayfields and lightly grazed pastures, and were doing just fine until the end of the 20th century when hay harvesting started to occur earlier and more frequently, right around the time bobolinks’ eggs are hatching, habitat loss accelerated and pesticide use became more widespread in South America where the birds spend the winter. The plunge in bobolink numbers has been dramatic. Between 1968 and 2008, bobolinks have declined by 65% in Ontario. One study showed that 96% of eggs and nestlings are destroyed during early hay cropping.

The only way to save these birds is by working together. As Rollins writes: “The successful recovery of bobolink and eastern meadowlark will require the support and participation of the agricultural community.” The Ontario government granted farmers a three-year exemption to the ESA, meaning that they won’t be penalized for accidentally harming or killing the birds. During this time, conservationists and farmers can craft a plan that protects this charismatic songbird without adversely affecting a farmer’s livelihood.

A Bobolink Round Table Advisory Group has been struck, co-chaired, fittingly, by Bette Jean Crews, former Ontario Federation of Agriculture President, and Jon McCracken of Bird Studies Canada. We wholeheartedly endorse this innovative and proactive approach to collaboration. We can all learn from each other. As Rollins says, “We are confident that a mutually beneficial solution will be reached.” In three years’ time, we’ll be ready with a plan that suits everyone including the singing bobolink.

Victoria Foote


Victoria Foote is Ontario Nature’s director of communications and editor of ON Nature magazine.

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12 Comments

  1. Very intresting to hear about the fate of the Bobolink, especially as I am in Ottawa at the moment and still have great memories of seeing them in Manitoba last summer.

    It sounds very comparable to the Scottish story of the Corncrake and how its recovery through the grass, hay and silage fields, and adjustment of cutting dates, has been helped by a positive collaborative approach.

    http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/262706-corncrake-recovery-back-on-track

    • Victoria Foote

      Thanks for letting us know about the Corncrake. As you say, it’s a similar situation.

  2. Hi Victoria:-
    I have about twenty five pairs of Bobolink nesting on my farm near Neustadt. They have been there every year since my father and mother bought the farm in the early 1950’s. They have always co-habited with the Red Wing Blackbirds and together fend off the Northern Harriers as best they can. It is (was) a well kept secret. Best Regards
    Bryan

    • Victoria Foote

      That’s wonderful Bryan! You must love hearing them sing in the spring time.

  3. We’re doing some work with Trent University to study whether changing hay cutting patterns can impact Bobolink nesting success. However, there is another dimension to this discussion. Bobolink are native to tallgrass prairie and meadows, not Ontario forests. They moved in after farmers cleared the land. If farmers created the habitat for the Bobolink where none existed before, should we be responsible for maintaining it at all costs?

  4. Michael Sweatman

    You are right, Harry, in your observation. However, since the farmers out west eliminated most of the tallgrass prarie habitat, bobolinks ventured and filled grasslands opening up further east (cowbirds followed!). Bobolinks are now spread thin over a wider area and the only way to save them is through concerted efforts by all concerned. Down here, in Vermont, we are also eliciting support from private landowners who depend less on income from the land.

  5. Liette Fadden

    So as a land owner , what should I advise the farmer who cuts the hay in our fields? I’m looking for specific dates that it would be “safe” to cut in order to preserve the bobolinks. We’re in southwestern Ontario.
    I’ve read to delaying cutting until beginning of July and then other places say wait until mid-July. Which is most accurate for this year in our area ? How early in the season can the cut be done perhaps before the birds start to nest?

    • Victoria Foote

      Thank you for your interest and concern! For bobolink, cutting before mid July is a problem in southern Ontario. The period from the end of May to July 15 is when the nesting and fledging of young occur. However, if possible, it is best not to cut hay between the end of May and the end of July. Not cutting in the last two weeks of July would also accommodate second nesting attempts (for those birds who lost their nests when surrounding fields were cut).

      Another consideration is eastern meadowlark, a grassland species recently added to Ontario’s endangered species list. Nesting for this bird begins in early May. So if meadowlark are likely to be present, it would be best not to cut between the beginning of May and the end of July, if possible. Note that meadowlark is also covered by the ESA exemption for farming practices: cutting hayfields is allowed at any time, and delay of cutting would be voluntary.

  6. Connie Black

    We will be haying this week (August 15th) after checking with a publication put out by our local Field Naturalists that contains fledge dates as well as a lot of other information about local birds.
    We recently bought an 80 acre mixed property, hayfields, wetlands and woods. We are in the southeast part of the province. Bobolinks fledge as late as August 2nd and Meadowlarks August 12th here. We were delighted to see almost 24 juvenile Bobolinks on August 4th and a couple juvenile Meadowlarks on the 12th.

  7. Andrea Smith

    I was heartbroken this summer to see all the bobolink and meadowlark habitat around our property mowed at the end of June. I’d like to approach neighbouring farms to start a discussion about delaying mowing, but what about the economic loss for farmers of waiting till the middle or end of summer? Isn’t the hay at its best nutritionally at the end of June?

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