Habitat & Conservation  |  02/27/2023

The Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative


QF On the Landscape in Virginia

By Celia Vuocolo, Quail Forever Private Lands Biologist

Most folks who have spent time in grassy fields and pastures know the call of the meadowlark. Its song is plaintive, and the sweet notes fall over each other with a bright delicacy; loudly distinctive over the otherwise quiet, open landscape. The eastern meadowlark makes a living in cool-season grass fields in the quail country of the Midwest and Southeast, where I work, and is often joined by its neighborhood gang of the grasshopper sparrow, bobolink, savannah sparrow, red-winged blackbird, and Henslow’s sparrow.

Many of these birds, including the eastern meadowlark, are obligate grassland species. This means they need grassland habitat to survive, and with more than 80 percent of the U.S.’s native grasslands gone, they are in trouble. Since 1970, 53 percent of our grassland bird population has been lost. And three in four meadowlarks have disappeared over the past 50 years.

There are over 50 species of birds that depend on grasslands in Virginia, and much of the grassland habitat that remains is in working farmland. This means that scientists and conservationists need to work hand in hand with farmers if they want to save birds. That’s where the Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative (VGBI) comes in. VGBI was founded on a partnership between Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes program and the Piedmont Environmental Council, with Quail Forever and American Farmland Trust as lead partners. VGBI aims to identify science-based best management practices that support grassland birds and farmers, and then assist producers with implementing these BMPs on their properties.

“What we have created with this partnership is the ability to conduct research on working lands that is locally relevant, addressing the needs of our community of landowners and producers, and then translate that research into tangible management practices,” Justin Proctor, VGBI Coordinator - Virginia Working Landscapes, explains. Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL) has been conducting biodiversity research on working landscapes since 2010, has trained 300 citizen scientists and has over 82,000 acres in its survey network.

VWL’s research has shown that a suite of grassland birds, including the meadowlark, use cool-season grass fields, comprised of tall fescue, orchard grass, etc., for nesting. This finding led to the creation of the partnership’s flagship project, the Delayed Haying and Summer Stockpiling Incentives Program. With funding support from the Cornell Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative, VGBI partners had a successful inaugural year in 2021 and enrolled 1800 acres in bird friendly practices. The Piedmont Environmental Council, a regional land trust and environmental advocacy nonprofit, stewards the program. They pay farmers to delay their haying to avoid a critical period in the grassland bird nesting season and/or set aside fields to stockpile grasses for grazing later in the year. “Many of these species nest directly on the ground, so they’re vulnerable to the way that we manage fields. By delaying haying and removing cattle out of fields for summer stockpiling, it allows them to fledge at least one nest successfully. By implementing summer stockpiling, you extend your grazing season and should need less hay to feed your cattle,” says October Greenfield,  VGBI Coordinator - Piedmont Environmental Council.

Agriculture makes up a third of Virginia’s landscape, so VGBI’s impact could be far reaching. My hope is that the initiative is recognized as a model that can be replicated wherever the meadowlark calls home.

This story originally appeared in the 2023 Winter Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Quail Forever member today!