The decline of a grassland bird species

The eastern meadowlark, though far from actual extinction, is becoming harder and harder to find in Maine.
Bob Duchesne
The eastern meadowlark, though far from actual extinction, is becoming harder and harder to find in Maine.
Posted July 13, 2012, at 1:22 p.m.
Last modified July 13, 2012, at 1:46 p.m.

Extinctions happen slowly, often right in front of our eyes. Currently, I’m watching the disappearance of the eastern meadowlark.

Twenty years ago, I could find this grassland bird in a number of places in Bangor. They were next to the Penjajawoc Marsh opposite the Bangor Mall until about 15 years ago. A decade ago, I could find them behind Dorothea Dix in what is now Saxl Park. Five years ago, I could locate one on the Chase Road in Bangor. I know of only one other pair within Bangor city limits. Perhaps they will soon be gone forever. I remember seeing them in the field opposite the Logging Museum in Patten. They were next to the marsh at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in Baring. They were in a farm field in Abbot. It has now been several years since I’ve seen them in any of those places.

Truthfully, the eastern meadowlark is far from actual extinction. It breeds widely across the United States, reaching even into parts of Arizona and New Mexico. In warmer states, it is nonmigratory. The meadowlark is not a lark. It is a member of the icterid family, related to orioles, blackbirds and cowbirds. Its flutelike song has echoed over pastures and hayfields for generations. Among its quirks, males typically have two mates, sometimes three. Unfortunately, like many grassland birds, its population is in sharp decline.

Population changes happen naturally over time but it’s pretty clear that grassland birds are declining because of human influence. Habitat loss is the big culprit as agricultural fields revert to forest or yield to subdivisions. Within New England and New York, at least nine species of grassland birds are now recognized as regionally threatened or endangered. Before wagging the finger of blame at ourselves, it’s important to remember that human influence created all that grassland habitat in the first place. The eastern meadowlark may be widespread precisely because of America’s celebrated farming heritage.

Another human change that affects grassland birds is that we now hay much earlier as growers try to squeeze multiple crops out of a season. I can’t fault the practice. Grass is a commercial crop no different than corn. It’s hard enough for farmers to make a living, and these fields wouldn’t exist at all except for farms and hay. Nonetheless, when a field is mowed before August, nests in that field inevitably fail and an entire season of reproduction is lost.

Even where fields and grasslands still exist, their availability as breeding habitat diminishes as the parcels get smaller and more fragmented. Some grassland birds need more room than others. Upland sandpipers require very large tracts of open space. Eastern meadowlarks require almost as much. Bobolinks can tolerate smaller fields and savannah sparrows can use grassy tracts as small as the rough along the edges of golf courses. I always enjoy the singing of savannah sparrows as I hunt for my lost ball at the tenth hole at Bangor Muni.

Our track record with grassland species isn’t good. The heath hen went extinct in 1932. Before the American Revolution, this eastern subspecies of the prairie chicken was so common from southern Massachusetts through Virginia that household servants complained when they were fed them too often. They were abundant and easy to hunt. By 1791, one of the first attempts to save a bird from extinction occurred in the New York state legislature when a bill to limit hunting the heath hen was passed. It proved unenforceable. Within one human lifetime, they were all gone from the mainland. Only a few remained on Martha’s Vineyard and despite heroic efforts to save them, they also passed into history.

The Eskimo curlew was once one of the most abundant grassland migrants in North America. Beginning in the 1870s, it took only 20 years of overhunting and habitat conversion to tip the bird towards extinction. The last Eskimo curlew seen in Maine was on a dinner plate in Aroostook County.

Change is inevitable. But it’s not a question of whether declining species can adapt to us; it’s whether we can adapt to each other. We have opportunities to preserve habitat for the eastern meadowlark without asking farmers to sacrifice. There are many tracts of grassland left on public lands in Maine and preserved in land trusts. For fields that are not essential for hay, it is a simple enough matter to mow after nesting. Perhaps the meadowlarks will return to Saxl Park. The bobolinks and meadowlarks thank you.

Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

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