Reed Cammack, a sixth-generation rancher from Potter, Nebraska, cherishes the arrival of spring when he hears the enchanting melody of the meadowlarks.
For him, the song signifies the triumphant survival of his family through yet another harsh winter on the vast prairies of western South Dakota. The break of dawn is a magical moment, as the birds illuminate the surroundings with their melodious chorus.
“The chorus of meadowlarks is an integral part of the flora and fauna that grace our Great Plains, and its beauty is simply captivating,” expresses Cammack, now 42 years old.
He dedicates his life to raising cattle on his family’s expansive 10,000-acre ranch, which predominantly consists of undisturbed native grasslands.
However, despite the seemingly ideal habitat, the number of returning birds has experienced a drastic decline. Cammack’s 92-year-old grandfather, Floyd, shares his concern, stating, “There are quite a few species that I no longer spot, and I am uncertain of the reasons behind their disappearance.”
In an effort to unravel this perplexing mystery, Cammack’s family has graciously allowed conservation groups to install a cutting-edge tracking tower on their land. This tower, equipped with advanced technology, aims to monitor the avian population and shed light on their migration patterns.
Additionally, bird surveys are being conducted to further understand the changes occurring within this delicate ecosystem.
The Cammack family’s collaboration with conservationists demonstrates their unwavering commitment to preserving the natural legacy of the Great Plains.
They understand the importance of maintaining a harmonious balance between human activities and the thriving biodiversity that resides within their ancestral land.
As the seasons change, Reed Cammack eagerly awaits the return of the meadowlarks, hoping that their vibrant melodies will once again fill the air. With every sunrise, he is reminded of the delicate interconnectedness between nature and humanity, and the vital role he plays as a steward of the land.
North America’s grassland birds are facing a severe crisis, even 50 years after the adoption of the Endangered Species Act.
The numbers of these birds have been plummeting due to various threats such as habitat loss, land degradation, and climate change, all of which pose grave dangers to the remnants of what was once a vast and vibrant ecosystem.
Since 1970, more than half of the grassland bird population has vanished, making it the most impacted bird group compared to any other.
Shockingly, some species have experienced a staggering decline of 75% or more, while a quarter of these birds are now on the brink of extinction.
Unfortunately, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that only 38% of the historic North American grasslands, which span an area of 293,000 square miles (760,000 square kilometers), remain intact. These remaining grasslands face imminent threats from intensive farming and urbanization.
Additionally, the spread of trees, once controlled by periodic fires, has become rampant, devouring vital rangelands and further encroaching upon the already dwindling habitats of these grassland birds.
So biologists, conservation groups, government agencies, and increasingly, farmers and ranchers are collaborating to address the decline of bird populations.
By sharing survey and monitoring data, scientists are able to identify the most significant threats to bird populations. They are also utilizing advanced computer modeling techniques to further understand these threats.
To track the movement of birds, researchers are intensifying efforts to tag them and installing radio telemetry towers. This allows them to monitor the whereabouts of birds and gather valuable data on their migration patterns and habitat preferences.
In addition to these research efforts, scientists are actively working with farmers and ranchers to implement best practices that ensure the survival of both their livelihoods and native bird populations. It is crucial to maintain a healthy ecosystem for the benefit of both humans and birds.
Amanda Rodewald, senior director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at Cornell University’s ornithology lab, emphasizes the importance of birds as indicators of environmental changes that can also impact humans.
Birds serve as the canary in the coal mine, offering an early warning system for broader environmental issues.
The collaboration between various stakeholders is a significant step in the right direction towards conserving bird populations. By pooling resources, expertise, and data, these groups are working together to stem or reverse the current losses and ensure the long-term survival of birds in their natural habitats.
Daniel Horton sets his timer, tilts his head, and immerses himself in the tranquil ambiance that surrounds him. Standing amidst an ethereal expanse of grasses and wildflowers, their delicate forms veiled by a misty fog, he eagerly listens for the slightest sound.
The morning sky gradually transforms into a tapestry of soft pinks and fiery oranges, painting an exquisite backdrop against which nature’s symphony unfolds.
Trills, twitters, chirps, and coos interweave harmoniously, creating a melodious dawn chorus in the native mixed-grass prairie of western Nebraska.
With each passing moment, Horton meticulously documents every sight and sound, serving as a dedicated field biologist for the esteemed Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. His presence on this improved grazing land, thoughtfully tended to by a local rancher, exemplifies the delicate balance between conservation and human interaction.
Amidst this harmonious chorus, the vibrant voices of western meadowlarks soar above the prairie, their melodious songs resonating with the flowering yuccas that dot the landscape.
Grasshopper sparrows flit and vanish, their ephemeral appearances adding an element of mystery to the scene. Horned larks, finding solace within the dense grass, remain hidden from casual observers, their presence a testament to the intricate web of life that inhabits this thriving ecosystem.
As Horton’s keen eyes scan the surroundings, he spots the rock wrens, their slender forms perched upon weathered rocks, adding a touch of rugged beauty to the landscape.
Nighthawks gracefully glide through the air, their wings slicing through the cool morning breeze. Mourning doves coo mournfully, their soft calls blending seamlessly with the chorus, while lark buntings flit about, their jet-black plumage contrasting vividly against the verdant grasses.
In this breathtaking tableau, Horton stands as both witness and steward, capturing the essence of this pristine prairie and the multitude of species that call it home.
Through his meticulous observations and unwavering dedication, he contributes to the protection and preservation of this delicate ecosystem, ensuring that future generations will continue to be captivated by the wonders of nature’s symphony.
Horton is currently engaged in an important endeavor that revolves around recording the species and population sizes of birds, while also assessing the condition of their habitats. This initiative holds great significance as it aims to estimate bird population densities and evaluate the impact of conservation efforts.
Horton emphasizes that the disappearance of grasslands poses a significant challenge for these avian creatures, making it increasingly difficult for them to thrive in the very areas where they originated and have historically inhabited.
According to a study conducted in 2019, the population of grassland birds in the continental United States and Canada has witnessed a staggering decline of 53% since 1970, in contrast to an overall bird loss of 30%. Additionally, a report published in 2022 indicated that two-thirds of the 24 grassland bird species studied have experienced significant population declines.
Alarmingly, eight of these species are currently at a tipping point, having lost over 50% of their breeding population, and are projected to lose another 50% within the next fifty years. Consequently, these species are now on a perilous trajectory towards potential extinction.
Among the grassland bird species, the lesser prairie chicken is the sole bird that has been federally listed as endangered, albeit only in specific regions of its habitat. Its population has plummeted by more than 90%, with an estimated remaining population of approximately 27,000 in 2022.
Notably, the Senate and House have recently voted to remove the bird from the endangered species list, driven by Republicans who argue that its protected status impedes oil and gas drilling activities. However, environmentalists are hopeful that President Joe Biden will veto this decision, as they recognize the importance of preserving the species and its habitat.
Among birds at a tipping point are Sprague’s pipit, a songbird that has experienced a devastating decline of over 75% in its population since 1970. This particular species exclusively breeds in certain areas of Montana, North Dakota, and small patches of three Canadian provinces.
Another bird facing significant challenges is the chestnut-collared longspur, which inhabits the northern shortgrass prairie and is known for its melodious songs that can be heard as it gracefully soars through the sky.
On the other hand, the Henslow’s sparrow is a rather quiet species, barely emitting any songs at all. Lastly, we have the bobolink, a bird renowned for its robust and vibrant songs, as well as its remarkable long-distance journeys to South America.
These four unique bird species represent a diverse range of characteristics and challenges within the avian world. However, they all share a common thread of vulnerability, as their populations continue to dwindle due to various environmental factors.
The decline in the population of Sprague’s pipit, for instance, is a cause for great concern. With its restricted breeding habitat and specific geographic range, this species is particularly susceptible to habitat loss and degradation.
Similarly, the chestnut-collared longspur faces threats from the diminishing availability of suitable habitats in the northern shortgrass prairie.
As this bird relies on open grassland areas for nesting and foraging, the conversion of these habitats into agricultural land or urban development has greatly impacted its population size.
In contrast, the Henslow’s sparrow, although less vocally expressive, has also experienced a decline in numbers. This bird’s preference for dense grasslands and wet meadows has made it susceptible to habitat loss and fragmentation.
Additionally, the decline in the number of native grasslands across its range has further contributed to the challenges faced by this species.
Lastly, the bobolink stands out for its impressive songs and extraordinary migratory journeys. However, the extensive loss of suitable breeding habitats in North America, coupled with the threats encountered during its long-distance migrations, have taken a toll on its population.
The destruction of grasslands, pesticide use, and climate change are among the factors contributing to the decline of this remarkable bird.
The plight of these birds serves as a reminder of the delicate balance within ecosystems and the need for conservation efforts to protect and restore their habitats.
As these species teeter on the edge of the tipping point, it is crucial for researchers, policymakers, and individuals to work together to implement effective conservation strategies.
By addressing the underlying causes of population decline, promoting habitat preservation, and raising awareness about the significance of these birds, we can strive towards a future where the songs of Sprague’s pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, Henslow’s sparrow, and bobolink continue to grace our landscapes.
“We’re raising awareness about the significant decline in bird populations,” says Amy Burnett, spokesperson for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. “If we don’t take action to reverse this trend, we may lose iconic species like the western meadowlark and the beautiful song of the Baird’s sparrow. Just imagine the impact of losing these birds on our prairies.”
While some grassland birds require vast stretches of prairie habitat, most have adapted to coexist with agriculture, explains Cornell’s Rodewald. This was made possible by having pockets of suitable habitat within fields or along their edges, as well as farmers leaving some fields fallow.
However, the adoption of more intensive farming practices has had a negative impact. The elimination of hedgerows and buffers, reduced crop diversity, and increased pesticide use have all taken their toll on bird populations.
Additionally, climate change is exacerbating the situation by bringing hotter and drier conditions that affect soil health and lead to increased erosion, causing watering holes to dry up.
To address this issue, non-profit organizations and government agencies are collaborating with farmers and offering incentives to improve soil quality, preserve grasslands, and adopt bird-friendly practices.
For example, delaying mowing until after the nesting season is one way to protect bird habitats.
Finding a balance is crucial, as “everyone needs to eat,” emphasizes Brandt Ryder, chief conservation scientist for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.
Conservation groups are actively working to understand the needs of farmers and ranchers, ensuring they can maintain profitable operations while simultaneously aiding in the recovery of grassland habitats and bird populations.
“Private landowners care deeply about the land they rely on for their livelihoods, and they are excellent stewards of the environment,” Ryder adds.
TURNING TO TECHNOLOGY
To help target conservation efforts, the Bird Conservancy is integrating its population and habitat data with other sources, including the U.S. Geological Survey’s long-running breeding bird survey and Cornell’s eBird sightings database.
However, there is still much that remains unknown. For instance, if birds have to travel long distances to find suitable breeding habitat, does this affect their breeding success? Where do they stop during migration and for how long? What is happening on their wintering grounds, and how many birds return from their winter territories?
Andy Boyce, a research ecologist at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center who studies the Sprague’s pipit, emphasizes the need to understand where and when these birds face the most challenges throughout their entire life cycle.
He states, “We need to figure out a lot of this before we can even start to prioritize where conservation actually needs to take place.”
To address these questions, researchers are working on establishing a comprehensive network of radio telemetry receivers across the Great Plains. This network will aid in tracking birds all the way from Canada to Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert.
When a bird equipped with a small transmitter comes within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of a receiver, which can be found on towers, poles, and other structures, information is automatically stored on a computer connected to a cell network accessible to researchers.
Radio telemetry is considered to be a more efficient method than traditional banding for gathering data on bird movements and longevity, according to researchers. The traditional banding method requires birds to be caught or spotted again in order to provide data, whereas radio telemetry allows for continuous monitoring without the need for recapture.
This is particularly important for grassland birds, as they often roam the Great Plains in search of the best nesting habitat, rather than returning to the same spot each year. This behavior evolved as a response to the constantly shifting grassland mosaic created by wildfires and bison herds.
The Motus Wildlife Tracking System, managed by Birds Canada, has extensively installed receivers throughout Eastern and Western North America.
However, until recently, there were few receivers in the central grasslands. Efforts are currently underway to build a network of 150 or more receivers, spanning from Canada to Mexico.
Matthew Webb, an ecologist leading the installation efforts for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, emphasizes the importance of achieving adequate coverage, including areas where grassland birds are not typically found. This includes mountain passes, where birdwatchers have reported sightings, in order to fill in knowledge gaps.
The expansion of bird ranges and the potential impact of disturbances in their core breeding areas have been observed through radio telemetry.
For example, Baird’s sparrows, which have experienced a significant population decline since 1970 and primarily breed in the northern Great Plains states and Canada, have unexpectedly appeared and successfully bred in Colorado.
It remains unclear whether their range is expanding or if disturbances in their breeding areas, such as oil and gas drilling, have forced them to seek alternative habitats.
In South Dakota, the Cammack family has allowed the bird conservancy to install a tracking tower on their ranch, and surveys conducted by another group have identified several tipping point species.
Reed Cammack expresses a special appreciation for native species, possibly more so than the average rancher, and recognizes the importance of maintaining a healthy ecosystem to support cattle raising.
Overall, radio telemetry is proving to be a valuable tool in studying bird movements and understanding the factors influencing their habitats. Its continuous monitoring capabilities and ability to provide data without recapture make it more efficient compared to traditional banding methods.
Green prairies stretch for miles as Brian Sprenger sets out to check on his cows, accompanied by their days-old calves. The serene landscape is interrupted momentarily as he brakes his pickup truck to let an antelope bound away.
He then gestures towards a group of sharp-tailed grouse gathered on a flat area, where the males display their courtship rituals during mating season.
Sprenger, 44, is in awe of the sight before him. He recalls seeing over two dozen grouse engaging in their elaborate dances, something he never witnessed as a child. In those days, much of the rangeland near Sidney, Nebraska, was either overgrazed or farmed.
However, a change began to take place about two decades ago when more ranchers decided to participate in a federal conservation program.
They started replanting native grasses and adopted a practice of frequently rotating their cattle to prevent overgrazing.
“With the flourishing of these rangelands, we have noticed the influx of various bird species,” Sprenger remarks.
Scientists emphasize that almost all of North America’s remaining prairie is situated on rangelands, with 90% of grasslands being privately owned. Therefore, the cooperation of landowners becomes crucial in halting the decline of bird populations.
They assert that without the presence of cattle, high-quality grasslands, which rely on grazing and trampling for their well-being, would cease to exist.
Despite the progress made, many landowners now face a new challenge in the form of rapidly spreading eastern red cedar and juniper trees.
These invasive species are contributing to the collapse of the grassland ecosystem, warns Dirac Twidwell, a rangeland ecologist and professor at the University of Nebraska.
Tree and shrub encroachment and cultivation are now causing nearly equal amounts of loss in the Great Plains each year, accounting for a combined 6,250 square miles (over 16,000 square kilometers), according to Twidwell, a science advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Since settlers first arrived, an estimated 292,000 square miles (756,000 square kilometers) have been taken over by these plants.
This encroachment has detrimental effects on ranching and farming, as it reduces the available land for these activities. Additionally, it forces grassland birds out of their natural habitat, as they are unable to adapt to the wooded environment.
Twidwell explains that the shrinking rangeland now leads to potential losses of approximately $323 million per year for ranchers.
In response to these challenges, landowners and environmental groups are taking action by cutting down trees and increasing prescribed burns to eliminate their seeds.
Twidwell emphasizes the urgency of the situation, stating that these grasslands are some of the last remaining large-scale grasslands on the planet.
This urgency is shared by bird conservation groups and the livestock industry, who all recognize the negative impact of encroachment on the ecosystem.
Rancher Reed Cammack acknowledges the responsibility of landowners in preserving these grasslands. He believes that it is crucial to take care of the land now to ensure that future generations, including his own children and grandchildren, are able to experience and appreciate it.