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Befriending Birds: Integrating wildlife conservation with livestock production

If someone asked how many cattle you ran on your ranch, surely you’d know a number. But if you were asked how many species of birds and wildlife could be found on your land, would you know? Would it be important to know?

If someone asked how many cattle you ran on your ranch, surely you’d know a number. But if you were asked how many species of birds and wildlife could be found on your land, would you know? Would it be important to know?

Tammy VerCauteren with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Fort Collins, CO, wants to get landowners thinking about those latter questions and to help them realize the important role birds and other wildlife play in rangeland settings.

VerCauteren, who works as an outreach director informing land managers about integrating bird conservation with rangeland management, says birds are ecologically and economically important to the environment.

Why birds are important
Economically, birds can mean big business. With nature-based tourism now the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry in the U.S., VerCauteren says many landowners are finding that offering wildlife or birding activities on their land can offer value-added opportunities. She reports that one in three of all Americans consider themselves bird watchers. And, a 2001 survey found that over 80 million American’s participated in some form of recreational activity related to fish and wildlife.

But even if nature tourism isn’t one of your ranch’s future goals, wildlife – particularly birds – also play critical ecological roles by helping keep rodents and insects at manageable levels.

“Birds eat insects and rodents; they spread seeds; and serve as prey for a diversity of other wildlife species,” says VerCauteren. As examples, she tells that a Baird’s Sparrow will collect an estimated 135 insects – mostly grasshoppers – daily to feed its young, and a pair of Ferruginous Hawks will kill roughly 500 ground squirrels, prairie dogs and rabbits in a single breeding season. These activities by birds help suppress insect and rodent populations, often keeping them below outbreak levels, VerCauteren points out.

She adds that since birds are closely tied to the available habitat structure (height and density of vegetation), they can serve as indicators of habitat change, which in turn can reflect changes in land management strategies and range health. “A healthy bird community should be a healthy grassland for livestock as well,” she says. So if something starts to decrease the diversity of bird species or populations, it may indicate a decline in range health that needs to be addressed.

Lastly – and perhaps the most important factor in conserving grassland birds – are the implications it has for the future. Not only will it mean future generations can enjoy a diversity of species, but implementing beneficial conservation efforts for birds and wildlife may also help keep management strategies within the hands of land owners and operators rather than being dictated by regulatory action. This is becoming even more critical as contentious issues continue to arise with sensitive, threatened, and endangered species.

How to manage for birds
Given all those reasons for the importance of birds and other wildlife, what can you do to manage for more of them on your land?

VerCauteren suggests land managers start by recognizing the habitat requirements of grassland birds. This includes looking at bare ground, species composition of the vegetation and structure of the vegetation.

“Birds need habitat with diversity. If it all looks the same, you’re not going to have as many birds. So we encourage landowners to try to keep a mosaic of conditions to meet the broader needs of birds,” she says. VerCauteren offers these guidelines for effective bird habitat:

Focus on habitat structure. VerCauteren says grassland bird communities are generally influenced more by habitat structure than the particular species of plants in the habitat. Structure consists of many factors including height and density of vegetation, topographic features, ground cover and man-made structures, and is important in providing nesting substrates and opportunities for feeding, resting, and perching.

So, the more structurally diverse a habitat is with grass, shrubs, forbs (flowering plants), etc., the more species-rich the bird community found there. For example, some species require taller, denser vegetation, while others require short vegetation, for attracting mates, nesting and brood rearing, Therefore, VerCauteren says grasslands with a patchy structure will provide opportunities for multiple species to co-exist.

Pay attention to species. While structure can be the biggest factor impacting bird habitat, it doesn’t mean plant species composition isn’t important. For instance, in the case of Sage Grouse, not just any shrub species will meet the habitat needs – these birds need sagebrush.

VerCauteren suggests that if you don’t have a large land mass that can offer diversity of habitat structure, perhaps you should focus on critical birds that are key to your area and the habitat you can provide.

Consider management implications. According to VerCauteren, management factors can greatly influence the available habitat structure for birds including the use or non-use of fire, haying, grazing, and methods of invasive species control.

As an example, heavy spring grazing year after year in the same pasture may reduce, or eventually eliminate, cool-season grasses in that pasture. This can be detrimental to early-season nesting birds that require a cool-season grass component.

As a solution, land managers should be aware of the habitat needs of birds and wildlife and try to integrate those needs with their rangeland management. Strategies might include:

  • Implementing a rotational grazing system that varies the grazing patterns and timing in pastures annually.
  • Using fire as a tool to create disturbance and alter habitat structure.
  • Waiting to hay areas until after July 15, when most birds are finished nesting.
  • Altering use in riparian areas to allow birds to utilize the area. Or, using escape ladders to protect water quality and minimize loss of birds and other wildlife in stock tanks.
  • Establishing native shrubs, legumes or forbs to add diversity to the habitat. Avoid establishing monoculture stands of forages.
  • Considering stocking rate. Overstocking will reduce habitat quality for most species of wildlife and birds.

Of these suggestions, VerCauteren emphasizes that there is a balance between livestock and wildlife. She says, “Grazing is a critical tool and birds need different levels of grazing to keep diversity in their habitat. Grazing can also be an effective tool for invasive species management.”

For producers interested in enhancing bird and wildlife habitat on their lands, VerCauteren says there are many partnership opportunities available for funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, and several private and state incentive programs. Contact any of these organizations for more information.

Visit the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative website