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?
"There's a misconception that cows kill birds," says Dave Steffan, a South Dakota rancher and retired rangeland management specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
But Steffan advocates that with proper grazing management, grasslands often support more songbirds and wildlife. And he says land managers need to communicate to the public that cows and birds can coexist.
That was the impetus for a unique tour held last spring by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition on two ranches in the Black Hills; the featured attraction was showcasing birds on the range. The tour invited birdwatchers and ranchers to learn from one another about the importance of range management in providing habitat for wildlife, while also producing beef.
"Our goal is to bring birders and ranchers together and show that range management is beneficial to both. Beef and wildlife do not need to be mutually exclusive," says Justin "Judge" Jessop with the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.
Mark Kieffer, one of the ranch-tour hosts, utilizes rotational grazing to help balance his goals of beef production and wildlife habitat. "We use wildlife as a barometer of how well we are managing the range," he says.
Benefits of birds. Birding advocates point out that birds are ecologically and economically important to the environment.
Economically, birds can mean big business. With nature-based tourism now the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry in the U.S., many landowners are finding that offering wildlife or birding activities on their land can offer value-added opportunities.
Ecologically, birds have an important role of keeping rodents and insects at manageable levels.
Additionally, birds can be an indicator species when there are environmental concerns. Recently, dead birds have been an indicator of West Nile Virus.
And because birds rely on their habitat for survival, they can also serve as indicators of habitat change, which in turn can reflect changes in land management strategies and range health. 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.
Smart strategies. For producers interested in integrating the habitat needs of birds and wildlife into their livestock operations, the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (www.rmbo.org) recommends these management strategies:
- Birds need habitat with diversity. Landowners are encouraged to keep a mosaic of conditions to meet the broader needs of birds. For example, the more structurally diverse a habitat is with grass, shrubs, forbs (flowering plants), etc., the more species-rich the bird community will be.
- Implement a rotational grazing system that varies the grazing patterns and timing in pastures annually. 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. Likewise, it is important to alter use in riparian areas to allow birds to utilize the area for nesting.
- Use fire as a tool to create disturbance and alter habitat structure.
- Wait to hay areas until after July 15, when most birds are finished nesting.
- Use escape ladders to protect water quality and minimize loss of birds and other wildlife in stock tanks.
- Establish native shrubs, legumes or forbs to add diversity to the habitat. Avoid establishing monoculture stands of forages.
- Consider stocking rate. Overstocking will reduce habitat quality for most species of wildlife and birds.
Simply stop for five minutes and record indicator birds for your pasture(s). Select an area that falls within a single pasture. Avoid stopping next to windmills (or fence lines) since some of the birds using stock tanks as perching areas may not actually be nesting in your nearby pasture.
The best time of year to survey breeding birds is from mid-May until the end of June. The best time of day to survey birds is from dawn until 10 a.m., because bird activity diminishes as the day progresses.
If possible, do a survey two or three times during the breeding season, using the same methodology, to get an average number of indicator birds on the land.
This protocol, though not statistically based, should provide an idea of bird trends within surveyed areas over time.
The Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory has other great tips. Visit www.rmbo.org.