2012-12-13 / News

Bringing a once-common bird back to Conanicut Island

Bobolinks are threatened by dwindling supply of hay
BY MARGO SULLIVAN


The bobolink is a migratory bird that breeds in open grassland, especially hay fields. The University of Connecticut’s Bobolink Project is trying to raise funds to protect hay fields so the bobolink can once again thrive in Jamestown. The bobolink is a migratory bird that breeds in open grassland, especially hay fields. The University of Connecticut’s Bobolink Project is trying to raise funds to protect hay fields so the bobolink can once again thrive in Jamestown. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the bobolink was probably the most common bird in Jamestown, according to Steve Swallow, a professor at the University of Connecticut. But today, according to Swallow, these migratory birds face an uncertain future due to a dwindling supply of habitat.

Swallow, director of the Bobolink Project, is studying ways to protect habitat – in 10 acre hayfi elds at a time – by compensating local farmers to delay the harvest past June 15 and give the baby bobolinks a chance to survive. The plan is to start small, by protecting between one and three hayfields and grow from there.

Bobolinks build nests on the ground, and they need the hay to stay undisturbed until they can lay and hatch their eggs and fledge the young. The birds arrive in town around the end of May and leave around the end of July. They typically travel 5,000 miles each way between North America and Argentina,

The schedule means bobolinks are laying eggs and hatching their young around the middle of June, which unfortunately also happens to be the peak hay harvesting time for farmers. Swallow said that is when the hay is at its top “nutrient value.” However, if the farmers go ahead and harvest the hay in mid-June, the fields become “an ecological trap.”

“The bird comes in and thinks it has everything it needs, but it doesn’t,” said Swallow.

Tammy Warner, a UConn research scholar, and Michael Siers, a graduate student, joined Swallow for the Dec. 6 presentation at the Jamestown Philomenian Library. The group updated the audience on the plans to reintroduce the Bobolink Project in the spring – but with some changes.

“We’re trying to reintroduce the project and wake it up again,” Swallow said. The goal is to help farms afford to bring wildlife to their land. To achieve that, Swallow said that farmers could ask for financial help from people who live in the community and care about “wildlife and the character.”

According to Swallow, islanders in the past have ponied up several thousands of dollars to help the bobolink. In 2007, Jamestowners and others contributed $9,700 in response to a mailing sent to 2,750 households. A total of 371 people replied to the first appeal, and 189 sent contributions ranging between $10 and $200.

In 2008, 212 people responded and 143 sent offers totaling $6,800.

Jamestown’s experiment with the Bobolink Project has served as a model for a similar effort in Vermont, Swallow said. But there is still room for improvement. Some negative feedback has prompted the organizers to take a fresh look at the issues.

Swallow said that one of the problems is the element of uncertainty. “In 2006, one farm had a lot of bobolinks, and one had fewer,” he said. He added that it’s expensive and difficult to say exactly how many bobolinks benefit from a specific field.

“It differs from year to year,” he said.

Siers suggested people might be more willing to pledge if the appeal focused on saving the bobolink, instead of preserving the hayfield. “To help support 15 bobolinks, I would be willing to pledge,” he said.

Swallow agreed people might be more willing to pledge, but added he wanted to be cautious on the numbers due to uncertainty about the number of bobolinks in a specifi c field. It would be possible to say the field was a good bobolink habitat and could support 15 birds, plus or minus.

Wayne Munns, a member of the audience, said he thought people who want to support the wildlife would be willing to accept a degree of uncertainty.

Habitat has value for people who enjoy the farmland’s historic character and want to see the history and the wildlife preserved, but it’s hard to put a dollar amount on the transaction.

“A lot of the project is about rules of exchange,” Swallow said. In this case, rather than going to the farm stand to buy produce, people are buying an intangible from the farmers. The benefits are preserving the local landscape and ecosystem, but the intangible isn’t merchandise people can take home.

“We’re looking for buyers and trying to connect them with sellers,” he said. Donors, according to Swallow, are usually residents who value the character that the hayfields offer, and the grassland birds that the hayfields bring to town. He said the farms help sustain elements of Jamestown’s historical character.

Swallow said the project may ask people to make a flat contribution to the project. But this time, Jamestown residents will probably be asked to make pledges to support the bobolinks in one or more hayfields. For example, he said, someone might pledge $15 per field and specify three hayfields, for a commitment of $45 if the project could protect all three hayfi elds.

The residents would only pay the pledge if the total is sufficient money to protect the hayfield, and thus eliminate the need to refund money that wasn’t going to be used.

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