2013-02-21 / News

Hayfields will keep species in town


The bobolink is a New World blackbird that breeds in open grassy fields – especially hayfields – and forages on seeds and insects near the ground. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BOBOLINK PROJECT The bobolink is a New World blackbird that breeds in open grassy fields – especially hayfields – and forages on seeds and insects near the ground. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BOBOLINK PROJECT Once one of the most common birds in Rhode Island, bobolink populations across the Northeast have plummeted by 40 percent. The bobolink, a cheerful bird found in hayfields and meadows across North America, is easily identified by its song, which resembles the voice of R2-D2 from “Star Wars.”

However, the bobolink is standing in the crosshairs of modern economic pressures on local farmers and landowners.

As costs continue to rise, farmers are forced to harvest their hay multiple times a year. In Rhode Island, birds like the bobolink depend heavily on those managed hayfields, but unfortunately hay harvests during the nesting season expose fledgling bobolinks to predation, with mortality near 100 percent.

The Bobolink Project staff has been talking with local farmers for the past few months about not mowing their hayfields during the bobolink-nesting season – with the understanding that they should think about bobolink habitat as a farm product that they sell for a fair profit, just like hay or meat. This week, staffers will begin actively soliciting pledges from the community, through mailings to each household on the island.

Unlike in past years, the Bobolink Project will fund raise through a binding pledge system. As residents may be aware, the project is not only about conservation, but is also university research into the most effective ways of capturing the public’s value for habitat protection. Community members pledge their values for varying levels of habitat protection, and then the pledges are tallied. Participants are billed after the project determines how many fields it can support, and participants are billed at the needed dollar value that corresponds to that many fields.

This approach is a brand new method for preserving habitat. “When you buy grass-fed beef from a local farm, you expect to receive beef, not carrots,” said Steve Sparrow, head of the Bobolink Project. “We are tying what you pay for to what you get. Traditional methods of wildlife conservation may use your funds to support other projects depending on how much money is raised. If you pledge more than we can use, we won’t bill you for the full amount of your pledge. That way, you know that your dollars are staying in your community. There are other bird conservancies around the world, but the Bobolink Project is focused on the local community, the community character, and the role of aesthetically pleasing wildlife in that community’s life.”

Swallow said his organization is about what people want for their community, and whether bobolinks and other grassland wildlife will continue their historic presence.

“People, and the choices they make, are the limiting factor for the continued health of the local ecosystem,” he said. “By sustaining bobolinks, Jamestown residents also sustain grasslands that capture excess nutrients from runoff waters, store carbon in roots and soils, and create scenic habitats for other wildlife.”

Biweekly office hours at the Jamestown Philomenian Library will continue through the spring. Residents can also visit Bobolink Project.com to learn more about the venture.

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