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Protecting Grassland Birds on Private Lands

A Landowner Incentive Program Habitat Protection Project

Grasslands are one of the most important and imperiled habitats across our state. These dynamic habitats are home to a significant community of bird species, including the endangered Short-eared Owl and the threatened Henslow's Sparrow and Upland Sandpiper, contributing significantly to the biodiversity of our state. Due to changing land-use patterns, natural vegetative succession, and development, grasslands are fragmenting and disappearing.

Habitat loss and degradation have resulted in sharp declines in grassland bird populations in New York since 1966, according to Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data. Affected species (with percent annual change) include Henslow's Sparrow (-14.7%), Grasshopper Sparrow (-9.0%), Vesper Sparrow (-8.5%), Upland Sandpiper (-6.3%), Horned Lark (-5.1%), Eastern Meadowlark (- 5.0%), Savannah Sparrow (-2.4%), Northern Harrier (-2.5%), and Bobolink (-0.3%). The net result has been an astounding 80-99% decline in abundance of each species in just four decades. These species, especially Henslow's Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, Grasshopper Sparrow, Short-eared Owl and Eastern Meadowlark are area-dependent species, meaning that they need large unbroken expanses of grasslands to thrive and reproduce. How much grassland habitat do these species need? The answer to this question is unclear and appears to depend on several other factors such as location, shape, surrounding habitats, and vegetative composition. However, as a general rule, grasslands need to be at least twenty-five acres in size to offer appropriate habitat for at-risk grassland birds in New York.

The importance of grasslands to our native avian fauna is clear. It is not too late in New York to save our best remaining grasslands, and perhaps to revert some marginal fields into high-quality habitat for grassland birds. The DEC recognizes the assistance provided by Audubon New York, a recognized authority in ornithology and habitat conservation, in establishing this program.

Find out how to apply for technical advice and financial assistance through this grants program. Grassland Focus Areas were determined by analyzing the 2nd New York State Breeding Bird Atlas data for grassland birds for the entire state. To further refine the focus areas, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) conducted point counts during the spring and summer of 2005.

The target grassland bird species are: Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, Short-eared Owl, Horned Lark, Sedge Wren, Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and Savannah Sparrows. The last three species listed are native grassland birds, and although their populations have declined significantly, they remain fairly widespread and abundant in New York; for now their populations appear secure. Consequently, the DEC concentrated on the rarer species and larger unbroken expanses when determining the Grassland Focus Areas.

More about Protecting Grassland Birds on Private Lands :

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