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PEC working to save Virginia's grassland birds

October Greenfield
Savannah sparrows and other grassland birds have declined dramatically in Virginia.

It’s nesting season for many songbirds including those that live on farmland.

The population of grassland birds has fallen dramatically in Virginia, and a coalition is hoping to bring them back.

For centuries, most of Virginia was covered with trees, but as farmers developed the land, meadowlarks, bobolinks, Bob Whites, red-winged blackbirds, grasshopper and Savannah sparrows were tempted to build nests here.

PEC Birdwatchers
Hugh Kenny
Citizen scientists completing a grassland bird survey for Smithsonian's Virginia Working Landscapes

“Many of these grassland bird species nest directly on the ground in the grasses, so when that grass is cut or mowed or cattle is grazing it, those nests can be destroyed.”

October Greenfield is with the Piedmont Environmental Council – one of four groups working with farmers to minimize the risk of destroying hard-to-see nests.

“So their best form of protection is camouflage down in these grasses. Nests are small. They’re made up of dry grasses. Many of them, such as Eastern meadowlarks, they actually create a cave nest that has a top over it, and they enter from the side, so finding them when you’re looking for above can be very difficult.”

Click here for more on the Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative

So the coalition is offering incentives for farmers to delay cutting their grasses for the hay market until mid-July and studying characteristics of fields most likely to attract nesting birds – then asking farmers to keep cattle off those fields until baby birds have fledged.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief