Songs of the Bobolink

Small changes on farmlands could help reverse the steep decline of a grassland species whose joyous chorus once filled the air.

By Cecily Ross

Every spring, the hayfields on our farm come alive when the bobolinks return. The spectacle begins in mid-May as the males gather in great swirling clouds, alighting on the telephone wires and the barely budding trees. A few days later, the females join them and a raucous, exuberant courtship ensues as the males, decked out in their backwards tuxedos, woo the females with the enthusiasm and showmanship of so many feathered rock stars.

For me, the bobolink’s joyous song – a bubbling cacophony of melody floating over breezy meadows (listen to it at http://wildspace.ec.gc.ca/media/sounds/bobo.wav) – is nature’s most eloquent harbinger of summer, evoking in a few bars of musical virtuosity the sweet, idle and seemingly endless landscape of my childhood. Those days are gone, of course, but not the bobolinks.

At least not yet.

One day last spring, I walked across the fields of our 36-hectare farm in Dufferin County with my birding friend Barb, through the thickening crop of timothy studded with buttercups and viper’s bugloss. She marvelled at the dozens of bobolinks putting on their noisy annual show, clinging to weed stalks and wire fences, puffing their neck feathers and spreading their wings, and then careening like low-flying planes over the waving grasses.

“Too bad they’re in such trouble,” she said.

“Trouble?” I replied, puzzled. As we stood there watching them, my bobolinks seemed undisputed masters of their domain.

“Bobolinks nest in the long grass,” said Barb. “In a few weeks, the farmer who leases your land will harvest this hayfield. And when he does, all the baby birds?” – she frowned and shook her head – “bobolink sushi.”

Thus began my personal campaign to save the bobolinks, if only the few that return each year to nest on our fields. The solution seemed simple: ask the farmer, my neighbour David Jones, to delay cutting the hay until the second week in July, by which time the baby bobolinks would be fledged and ready to fly. Not a farmer myself, I had no idea what impact this would have on Dave’s beef cattle operation. And because I anticipated that he would treat my request with the bemused resignation that he reserves for “crazy city folks” like ourselves, who have strange notions of country living, it took me more than a week to get up the nerve to make the call.

In the meantime, I learned a lot about bobolinks. First, I found out that the birds are in danger of disappearing altogether in a few decades if something is not done to protect their nesting grounds.

Bobolinks are grassland birds, which means that in Ontario they nest in hayfields and lightly grazed pastures. Originally denizens of the native grasslands of western Canada, the species moved eastward in the last century as their home habitat declined and the eastern forests were cleared for agriculture. Until the mid-1980s, bobolinks adapted well to the meadows and open fields of south and central Ontario. Today, the province supports about one-fifth of the world’s population of bobolinks, whose breeding range extends from central British Columbia to the Maritimes and in the United States from southern Oregon to western North Carolina. In fact, a map based on Breeding Bird Survey data shows the highest concentrations of bobolinks right in my own backyard: the farmlands of Bruce, Grey and Dufferin counties.

Things were going beautifully for the bobolinks until, in the latter part of the 20th century, agricultural practices changed. In particular, farmers began harvesting their hay more frequently and earlier. Today, cutting dates occur two to three weeks sooner than they did 50 years ago – in mid- to late June, right around the time that the bobolinks’ three to seven mottled, greyish eggs hatch and the tiny newborns are at their most vulnerable. According to the Quebec-based Migration Research Foundation, 96 percent of eggs and nestlings are now destroyed during early hay cropping, either killed by mower blades or scooped up by gulls and other predators when the protective grasses are cut.

Jon McCracken, national program director of Bird Studies Canada, confirms that bobolinks have undergone a “widespread and severe decline in past decades,” and the biggest drop in the last decade is here in Ontario. In the 40-year period between 1968 and 2008, bobolink numbers declined by an average of 2.6 percent per year, an overall decrease of 65 percent. Even more alarming is that the rate of decline has increased decade by decade. In the 10 years up to 2008, bobolink populations dwindled by an average of 7.1 percent per year, resulting in a 50 percent plunge in the number of this species.

“It’s a massive, massive loss in population,” says McCracken, adding, “We are seeing these sorts of declines in all grassland birds in North America.” The cause is the same for all the species: loss of habitat and habitat disturbance.

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Comments

13 Comments on "Songs of the Bobolink"

  1. karl chittka on Mon, 16th May 2011 3:37 pm 

    I have been farming in Grey and Dufferin Couties for 43 years mostly making hay. The main reason in my view for the loss of our bird population is the increase in gulls killing the young birds.Icut my hay only in July and seeing the large flocks of gulls waiting to follw me when I start cutting and picking of the young birds and anything that move such as mice or frogs is disturbing. Controlling gulls would be a big help to save birds

  2. Chris Gates on Sun, 22nd May 2011 10:00 pm 

    I have seen in the past two weeks at least three male and two female Bobolinks in the same locaation in farm fields in North Pickering. They appear to be nesting. Is this significant and should I let MNR know?

  3. Jennifer on Mon, 30th May 2011 12:55 pm 

    Cecily,
    Thank you so much for writing this article! I have a farm property in Grey county that’s a breeding ground for many, many bobolinks. I love birds and always enjoy hearing the bobolinks’ cheerful song in the springtime, but was unaware that they’re in such trouble. I, too, rent out my farmland, so I’ll see if the farmer will be open to delaying the grass-cutting for a few weeks. Hopefully I can save a few bobolinks!

  4. John on Mon, 13th Jun 2011 11:09 am 

    Yesterday when I walked my fields I was again astounded by the melodious song of the bobolink. The music immediately evoked joy that was quickly tempered by a harsh reality – if I followed through on my plan of cutting the hayfield tomorrow, the bobolink would probably lose its nest.

    I could wait two or three weeks to cut the hay, but by then it would be over-mature and practically unsaleable. The outcome? Bobolink is saved, but at a great economic loss to me, the farmer.

    The obvious question: who should bear the cost for saving a bird’s nest?

  5. Jordan on Fri, 17th Jun 2011 2:01 am 

    Chris,
    at this point bobolinks have been classified as threatened in Ontario as a precaution because of their rapid decline, and recent estimates put around 300,000 – 400,000 pairs in Ontario so the MNR shouldn’t be overly concerned with individual pairs yet. It is still good to protect the birds, if you know who owns they farm let them know for starters.

  6. jane kirkpatrick on Sun, 10th Jul 2011 3:41 pm 

    Hello Thank you for the article about bobolinks , one of my most favourite birds. I would very much like to help out in spreading this information about delaying the cutting of hay eg putting articles in rural newspapers, or in any other useful way. Please let me know what I can do. Thank you. JaneK

  7. Kenneth on Thu, 2nd Aug 2012 12:54 pm 

    The first time I saw bobolinks was in some small farmer’s fields on the Bruce Peninsula, while hiking the Bruce Trail. Very neat, very colorful and a nice song. Seem like friendly birds. I have since seen them elsewhere driving through Grey county.

  8. Charlie on Fri, 12th Oct 2012 11:57 pm 

    We traditionally cut hay based on the maturity of the grasses to get the most feed value (protein) from it to feed our livestock well. That time to do 1st cut is June, preferably early to mid-June, not July, or August, because by then, there is nothing left for the animals to eat but sticks as all the grasses will have gone to seed and lost all their protein value. They need to eat grass with nutrition value in it, not sticks.

    And, if you don’t do your 1st cut in June, there won’t be enough regrowth to get any 2nd cut. And 2nd cut is the most valuable and has the highest protein level, often ranging from 22 – 24%. 1st cut is usually around 14 – 18%. But if you don’t cut the hay until July, you get nothing of any value out of both crops and your animals will starve because the 1st cut will be 7% protein and you will NOT get a 2nd cut at all. There are minimum nutrient requirements for animal protein level requirements in their feed and 7% is well below all of them. Their bellies will be full, but they will die of starvation.

    So, who dies? The birds or all of our animals?

  9. Carrie on Sat, 8th Dec 2012 10:43 pm 

    Pretty! This has been a really wonderful article. Many thanks for supplying these details.

  10. ontarion on Mon, 10th Dec 2012 3:24 pm 

    Thanks Carrie.

  11. Jack on Mon, 29th Apr 2013 3:51 am 

    Charlie, I’m calling you out on your “facts” As the sixth generation to farm our land in Leeds County, I can assure people that we have raised 1000′s of cattle, both dairy and beef, on hay that was NEVER cut before July, usually not until after the long weekend. We’ve been doing it that way since 1832. Maybe you need to manage your forage better, because our cattle have always sold for top dollar. I should also add we have been straight grass/hay fed for going on 25 years…no corn/oats or silage. My grandfather showed me my first Bobolink as a young boy, and told me to look out for them. I intend to do just that.

  12. GK on Sun, 7th Jul 2013 2:39 pm 

    karl chittka nailed it. Large following gull flocks are responsible for the massacre of incident life when mowing hayfields. Nothing escapes. I guess, a choice between Bobolinks or Gulls may be required.

    Gulls do a pretty good job of annihilating all species, when cover is removed. Shame, but field extermination of mice, provides some benefit, perhaps. GK

  13. Saving bobolinks | Ontario Nature's wildlife blog on Wed, 12th Feb 2014 6:40 pm 

    [...] 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. [...]

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