A 6,000-Mile Journey to Vermont
Look across Vermont meadows and hayfields in the spring and summer and you may see the bobolink, a songbird that travels up to 6,000 miles to get here—all the way from the grasslands of Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil.
Beginning in March, bobolinks travel in large flocks by night, arriving in Vermont in May, when courtship begins (see a nesting calendar here).
During breeding season, males are black and white with a tuft of straw-yellow on the back of their head. They flutter across fields singing a song that may make you think R2-D2 is loose in the haylands of Vermont. In early June, eggs are laid in open-cup nests built into depressions formed at the base of clumps of grass.
Why are bobolinks in trouble?
In Vermont, the bobolink population has declined over 70% in the last 40 years. The decline is due to troubles on both sides of the migratory journey.
While they’re thought of as beneficial to U.S. and Canadian farms because of the insects they eat, they are also known as the “ricebird” by South American rice farmers who treat them as agricultural pests.
In Vermont, a conservation success story – the reforestation of the much of the state – has not worked out so well for the bobolink. And these days, the grasslands that remain are often hayed earlier than in the past, resulting in bobolink eggs and chicks being destroyed by mowers. While later mowing would help nesting birds, it often results in nutritional losses in the hay, presenting a dilemma for farmers.
What can landowners do?
It’s a challenging question. VLT has struggled with what the right thing to do is on hayfields we own. Mowing patterns may help. Fledged young and mature birds will have a better chance of escape if mowing starts in less bird-friendly areas, such as near structures, and then moves in rows toward the rest of the field. Likewise, mowing from the center out will allow more birds to escape.
Consistency is essential to bobolink conservation. Bobolinks will return year after year to a field where they’ve had success. It is better to forgo early mowing on one small unproductive field consistently than to change mowing cycles after a couple of years.
The Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) has a grassland bird program and experts to help all of us decide how to achieve our hay production and bird protection goals.