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Written by Terry Spraque   
Aug 01, 2017 at 03:00 AM

BACKYARD NATURALIZATION - Attracting Birds and Other Wildlife Species to Your Premises

 As environmental awareness increases, it is only to be expected that some of this interest might be directed to our own backyards. There are concerns about what we are putting on our properties to create that "perfect lawn." Do we need a perfect lawn? What can we do make our properties, be they large or small, more attractive to wildlife? And how much is too much of a good thing? This page will attempt to address the increasing interest we are taking these days in naturalization our backyards, how to attract wildlife, how to manage what we have, and how to dissuade those species we don't want. It is all about doing things "naturally", with native species of plants, natural fertilizers, composting - all those things all of us should have started doing much earlier in our lives. Watch this page regularly for more tips on how you can enhance your property and make it more attractive to wildlife. 

NOTE: "Mouse over" the photos for their identification

Terry Sprague points out the benefits of grassland management to a group of naturalists.  Photo by Helene TremblayGrassland birds need grassland habitat, but many grassland species are declining. The reason? With improved technology, hay is being cut earlier in the summer than when it was harvested in earlier years.  Haying machinery is often in the field by early June, and that spells disaster for ground nesting birds such as Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks, in particular. If nests are destroyed early enough, there is an opportunity for these species to make a second attempt. But, where? Important nest cover has been removed so the birds must seek another unharvested field and hope that it isn’t also on the schedule to be cut. In most cases, grassland birds simply don’t bother to make a second attempt at building another nest. So, that nesting year is lost to them.


Last year was especially difficult for grassland birds as a relentless drought in the Bay of Quinte region had farmers scurrying to get the hay harvested while it was still in prime condition. This race to get the crop in, threatened the grassland bird population in our area, because it coincided with the peak breeding season for bobolinks and meadowlarks.


A male Bobolink checks out a possible nest site. Photo by Keith GregoireFortunately, many farmers today are sympathetic toward the plight of declining grassland bird populations and are selflessly doing their part to help bring back their numbers, sometimes at considerable expense to themselves. More and more, farmers are delaying their cutting of the hay until July 15th in fields where bobolinks and meadowlarks and other grassland birds are known to nest.


One such person owns the property right beside us. The farm comprises some 180 acres, but much of it has succumbed to natural plant succession, resulting in many once arable fields now thick with cedars, ash, and dogwoods. That in itself is good for it makes good habitat for numerous species. However, about 50 of those acres comprise a connected series of brome grass hay fields that have been harvested regularly every year by a succession of previous owners. This, in turn, has made it suitable habitat for many species of grassland birds, that simply have no interest in overgrown field habitat.


New owner, Kent Monkman, an accomplished aboriginal artist from Toronto, knew right from the day he bought the property a few years ago, that he wanted to do the right thing. Purchasing the property was the first step to serve as a buffer from neighbouring activities; the second step was to manage it properly. That second step was to leave much of it as it was, but to manage the hay fields for grassland birds.


These fields are harvested late to allow nesting Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks to complete their nesting. Photo by Terry SpragueIt has been my pleasure to work with the new owner toward that end. The hay fields are harvested by another neighbour who is also very much aware of the plight grassland birds are going through right now and for the past two years has agreed to delay cutting the fields until later than the normal date. A 2-km trail has been mowed around the perimeter of the field complex to better facilitate monitoring of the birds. It was during this daily monitoring of bobolink and meadowlark activity that we determined approximately where the birds were nesting and roughly how many species were involved. Determining the number of bobolink nests is an educated guess at best, and the number of visible males while females are setting on eggs and hidden by the dense grass is a case of coming up with a few variables and unknowns and determining a total as the male birds can be quite promiscuous, and 25 males don’t necessarily mean there are 25 nests. However, once the females were off their nest and actively feeding young, the number could be more accurately determined.  I counted 14 females (14 nests?), and there were at least six pairs of meadowlarks.


In addition to the bobolinks and meadowlarks, there were other species nesting. A pair of Grasshopper Sparrows also nested along the edge of one field, a species not known for its large numbers anywhere. In the bushy side fields dominated by red cedars, a pair of Clay-colored Sparrows also nested this year along with Eastern Towhees, Alder Flycatchers, Common Yellowthroats, and Eastern Kingbirds, just to mention a few that I noticed on my morning walks on the trail. On one occasion, a Vesper Sparrow was singing, a grassland species that is sure to return to these fields as a nesting species if a management program is put in place right away. In 1997, two very rare endangered Henslow’s sparrows also showed up in one of the fields and one of them remained for about a month before moving on. That year, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry became involved and halted the cutting of any hay on that field for that season. So, these fields over the years have become very important grassland habitat. Now, we protect them, and attempt to enhance them, utilizing any incentive programs that may be available.


A 2-km trail around the perimeter of the six fields allows monitoring of the nesting activity on a daily basis. Photo by Terry SpragueThe Nature Conservancy says that over the past 40 years, there has been an alarming 70% decline in grassland birds. Early cutting of hay is only one reason for the decline. Abandoned farms reverting to forest, the growing of row crops (corn, wheat, soybean), increase of mechanization and chemical use and development have all led to habitat fragmentation and loss. It is a rare treat to see a network of six fields comprising almost 50 acres that has been left intact. These fields definitely need to be managed properly so we don’t lose the population that has built up. Many of these grassland species can thrive quite happily in agricultural areas if bird-friendly practices are used, as these birds benefit farmers by consuming agricultural pests.


Managing these fields definitely does not mean barring the cutting of any fields. These fields benefit from removal of thatch and should be cut every season, or so. In this particular location, encroaching Red Cedars are an issue and once they get a toehold, the field is lost. It takes cedars only a couple years before they become too tall to cut safely with a haybine. Those who wish to save grassland birds, farmers, and guiding agencies have shown repeatedly that it is possible to work cooperatively together. On this particular farm, cats – feral or otherwise – do not seem to be an issue, making these fields a good case study and a sure success! .


A few incentive programs and booklets below with other helpful suggestions are listed below. Lots of good reading!Each title is clickable.


1) Grassland Habitat Farm Incentive Program (Ontario Soil and Crop)

2) The Grasslander

3) Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program

4) Farm Property Class Tax Rate Program

5) Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plan

6) Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk

7) Species at Risk Partnerships on Agricultural Lands 

8) Managing Hay and Pasture to Benefit Grassland Birds

9) Birds on the Farm


Don’t know where to go to obtain native trees and shrubs and wildflowers? Obviously you want to consult someone who is dedicated and knowledgeable in this field. Two great native plant nurseries in the local area:

1)  NATURAL THEMES, Frankford: Whether it’s gardening with native plants or attracting wildlife to your backyard, Natural Themes, is a good place to go for information and a selection of high quality, affordable plants. Owner and proprietor Beate (Bea) Heissler is well known in the Quinte area, having been involved as an educator at the H.R. Frink Centre, north of Belleville, for many years, Natural Themes offers a wide variety of woodland, meadow/prairie and wetland species including wildflowers, ferns, sedges, grasses, shrubs and vines as well as native deciduous and coniferous trees.  Natural Themes Website 

2) FULLER NATIVE AND RARE PLANTS, Belleville: Peter Fuller propagates and grows perennials, ferns, grasses and bulbs native within a 100-mile radius of the nursery. "We practise ethical seed collection and all plants are nursery propagated," says Peter Fuller. "We promote the conservation of wild plants and the maintenance of genetic diversity in plant populations. We provide advice and resources for using native plant material in home gardens." Fuller Native and Rare Plants website


Last Updated ( Jul 31, 2017 at 11:04 PM )
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September 25, 2017 5:41 am