Is farming for the birds?

Many people derive hours of pleasure observing the behaviors of the birds that wing about their home landscapes. The colorful and diverse plumage of various bird species, their unique songs, and distinct personalities are a source of entertainment and education for patient bird watchers.

For example, a life-long birder, the late Mary Anne Stang Ensign, of Lima, found great joy creating a sanctuary for birds. Beyond the feeders she had in her yard, Mary Anne always kept feeders at the kitchen window so she could watch them while cooking and washing dishes; additionally, she had special boxes in the dining room windows so she could watch the birds at lunch and dinner time.

“I loved the peace and beauty of bird watching. They gave me a quiet pleasure, demanding nothing of me but a full feeder,” she said.

She also learned a great deal about avian routines, noting the annual appearance of migrating birds and recording rare sightings in her field identification books. Gazing out of her windows in the spring months as the weather warmed and birds returned northward, she would happily observe, “Oh! The juncos are back!” or take note that, “I saw my first titmouse today.”

Just as Ensign learned much of and from the domestic songbirds of suburbia, the observance and study of farmyard birds can be enjoyable and instructive. There is a great diversity of bird life in Ohio’s agricultural landscape. Wildlife Research Biologist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Laura Kearns said farmers in the Buckeye State might encounter a variety of birds in their hay and pasture fields including bobolinks, northern bobwhites, upland sandpipers, American gold finch, meadowlarks, eastern bluebirds, purple martins, tree swallows, pheasant, and a variety of sparrow species. Barn swallows, rock pigeons, European starlings, and house sparrows frequently reside in and around old outbuildings and barns.

Many of these songbirds benefit from open fields, and farms benefit from the birds’ presence. “More bird species live in and use pastures and hayfields than crop fields because they provide cover for many birds to nest in,” Kerns said. “Additionally the insects in these fields provide food for many songbirds. Many grassland bird species eat insect pests.”

Red-winged blackbirds reside in the marshy areas around farms and feast on field corn in the “roasting ear” stage.

Red-winged blackbirds reside in the marshy areas around farms and feast on field corn in the “roasting ear” stage.

On the other hand, many of the birds found in croplands have a more negative effect on farming operations.

“Songbirds typically found in crop fields include red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles, and European starlings,” Kearns said. “Problem species include these blackbird species and American crows. They can flock in great numbers and do extensive damage to crops.”

The famed early 19th century naturalist John James Audubon spoke of the “tithe our blackbirds take from our planters and farmers,” and scornfully depicted the grackle as a remorseless thief, whom, “full of delight at the sight of the havoc which he has already committed on the tender, juicy, unripe corn on which he stands, has swelled his throat, and is calling in exultation to his companions to come and assist him demolishing it.”

Research has found that droves of starlings flocked together can also be detrimental to farming operations. A USDA-funded study, “Association of wild bird density and farm management factors with the prevalence of E. coli 0157 in dairy herds in Ohio (2007-2009),” looked at the relationship between starlings and the presence of E Coli at 150 Ohio dairy farms concluded that “starlings play a crucial role in the dissemination of food-borne bacteria among dairy farms…They eat large amounts of livestock feed and contaminate the farm environment with excrement…Moreover, these birds are aggressive and often displace native species of birds…[They] cause at least $800 million in agricultural damage in the USA, annually.”

And to think, the most abundant bird in North America, that ugly, aggressive, nest-stealing starling, was first introduced into New York City in 1890 as part of an ill-advised project to bring all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare to North America.

Whether the bane of the barnyard, or a friend of the farm, every bird species has a unique story to tell. For instance, cowbirds, so-named for their persistent presence around cattle operations, first followed the immense herds of American buffalo across the Great Plains, feeding on the insect life stirred up by their bovine counterparts. Because they had to follow the bison herd across long distances and they did not have time to nest, cowbirds adapted and became brood parasites, meaning that they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and allow the host bird to hatch and raise their young. As the buffalo disappeared and agriculture came to reign, this bird species settled on farms, but kept its nest invading habits.

This is often problematic, as the larger, more aggressive cowbird chicks often out-compete their nest mates for food and space, sometimes knocking other baby birds out of their nests prematurely. Research has even found the cowbird parents to be quite thuggish: when ornithologists removed the cowbird eggs from other bird nests, they observed that the parent cowbirds would often return to the host nests and destroy them.

On a lighter note, the barn swallow, that low-flying, agile, and graceful bird of country places proves an intriguing study. Folks with old barns are well familiar with the fluttering sight of these cobalt blue birds’ long, pointed wings and deeply forked tails as they swoop through the barn and into their distinctive cup-shaped nests of mud pellet and plant fiber. They are like fast food addicts, always eating on the go: barn swallows feed almost exclusively in flight and also drink and bathe while flying. As they buzz above the water’s surface, they dip down and take a mouthful of water or skim their belly across the surface. Ever marveled at a barn swallow with what appears to be an extremely long tail? A recent study by Rebecca Safran at the University of Colorado Boulder suggested that the elongated tail streamers on barn swallows are for both “flight and fancy.” Safran said it is likely both natural and sexual selection that causes streamer elongation, observing that “males with the longest streamers enjoy a significantly greater share of paternity in their nests and the nests of others, relative to their short-streamered neighbors.”

Additionally, Safran said, “Like so many other species on our planet, barn swallow populations appear to be declining… though it is still common enough to observe swallows in flight almost anywhere you look, changes in agricultural practices and the move toward metal and concrete over the use of wood for barn construction, and the usual detrimental effects related to human population growth appear to be taking their toll.”

There are serious concerns for the future health of many of the avian species that frequent farms, according to the ODNR.

“Grassland birds are in decline. There is serious concern about them in the ornithological community. They are susceptible to the pesticides used in agriculture because it reduces the amount of their primary food, insects, and there can be side effects resulting from the chemicals,” Kearns said.

Kearns said that the removal of fencerows has severely affected the northern bobwhite quail’s ability to find protective cover in winter and even common and abundant species such the Eastern meadowlark and red-winged blackbird have been in decline over the past 50 years. Kearns offers up some suggestions for promoting healthy ecosystems for bird life on the farm. “Avoid mowing grass from May until July. This period is when most grassland birds have nests. Mowing or cutting grass destroys most nests,” she said. “Creating and maintaining natural habitat on your property is the best thing to attract birds. Putting natural habitat where crops do not grow well is a good way to balance production and wildlife habitat. There are many federal and state programs, most notably the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), available to help landowners create and improve habitat on their property.”

Feeders and bird boxes placed about one’s property will always attract bird life, and should one choose to do so, black-oiled sunflower seed is very appealing to many birds. Birds that flitter and glide in the summer sun showcase the “glittering fragments of the rainbow,” as Audubon once said. Their personalities and behaviors are as distinct and varied as their feather patterns. Looking out over the agricultural scene, the observant eye will see and appreciate the duality of life as played out in the bird world, where, as in the human one, selfish violence and selfless beauty interplay in a struggle for survival.

 

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