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Grassland Bird Facts and Best Management Practices

Grassland habitat
Leaving grasslands undisturbed from
April through August allows grassland
nesting birds time to raise their young.

Grassland Bird Habitat Requirements

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. The net result has been an astounding 80-99% decline in abundance of each species in just four decades.

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 vegetation types.

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.

Best Management Practices

These Best Management Practices (BMPs) should be used to guide habitat management on grassland habitat or habitat to be converted into grassland. The management goal of these BMPs is to maintain the open, grassy conditions necessary for successful breeding by grassland birds and to avoid disturbance to nesting birds. Techniques to be used may include seeding, mowing, and removal of trees and shrubs. Typically, land should be managed for a minimum of 5 years to begin showing benefits for grassland birds. Fields not managed do not remain in a condition suitable for grassland birds for very long.

These BMPs were for the Landowner Incentive Program for Grassland Protection and Management, but can be applied to any sizable grassland to benefit grassland birds. From 2008-2018, 40 landowners managed over 4,300 acres of grasslands to benefit grassland birds through the former Landowner Incentive Program.

For more detailed information and recommendations, see A Plan for Conserving Grassland Birds in New York (leaves DEC website). In particular, refer to the plan for species-specific habitat requirements and detailed recommendations regarding grassland management and restoration techniques. Please contact DEC directly for guidance on mitigation projects.

Target Bird Species

The management recommendations in these BMPs are aimed towards grassland birds-Henslow's Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, Grasshopper Sparrow, Short-eared Owl, and Eastern Meadowlark, Northern Harrier, Sedge Wren, Vesper Sparrow, Bobolink, and Savannah Sparrow. Loggerhead Shrike is considered functionally extirpated in New York State. Target birds are those listed as "probably" or "confirmed" breeding in the 2005 Breeding Bird Atlas (BBA) Block where the subject field is located. Birds registered in BBA blocks adjacent to the block where the field is located could colonize the subject field once the habitat becomes suitable for them.

  • Nesting Restrictions: Grasslands should not be disturbed by mowing, planting, harvesting, driving, or by any other mechanized means from 23 April to 15 August, inclusive (the nesting season) of every contract year.
  • Wintering Restrictions: Excessive disturbance such as frequent high speed snowmobile, ATV, motorized vehicle operation, or loud noises such as fireworks should be avoided from 1 November to 1 March, inclusive for the protection of wintering raptors.
  • Mowing window: All mowing must be done between 16 August and 31 October.
Preliminary Site Management
  • Between 16 August and 1 November of the first year of management, reduce fragmentation of the grassland by eliminating hedgerows, shrubs, and trees within the boundaries of the LIP field.
  • Between 16 August and 1 November and to the extent possible, eliminate woody vegetation, especially hedgerows within and bordering the field. Hedgerows split up habitat and function as corridors for predators such as coyote, foxes, cats, or raccoons and degrade the overall quality of the site for breeding.
Management Schedule

General: Mowing as early within the mowing window as circumstances and conditions allow to prevent the maturation and release of seeds from forbs, especially the species listed below. At least 1/3 of mowed vegetation should be chopped up and left on site after each mowing. Thatch will provide nesting habitat for birds as well as attracting moles and voles which are prey for raptors and owls.

Invasive or Undesirable Species: The following species, if present, may require spot-mowing after August 15th of any year to control their encroachment into the field: spotted or brown knapweed, pale swallow-wort, burdock, or goldenrods.

Years One through Five:

  • Conduct Preliminary Site Management as described above.
  • Divide the field into 1/3s (approximately) if total acreage is 30 acres or more, or into 1/2s if field is less than 30 acres. Mow the first 1/2 or 1/3 of the grassland to a height no shorter than 6 inches (8 inches is preferred). Rotate the portion mown every year.
Additional Recommendations

Prevent disturbance of nesting birds by feral or outdoor cats, dogs, fireworks, etc.

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