The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says grassland songbird populationsare declining more rapidly than any other North American species. That’s primarily because nesting habitat has been destroyed byagriculture and urban sprawl. Now, researchers in Minnesota arecombining old fashioned legwork and high tech equipment in hopes oflearning ways to stabilize the population of prairie songbirds. TheGreat Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Gunderson reports:
The US Fish and Wildlife Service says grassland songbird populations are
declining more rapidly than any other North American species. That’s primarily
because nesting habitat has been destroyed by agriculture and urban sprawl.
Now, researchers in Minnesota are combining old-fashioned legwork and high
tech equipment in hopes of learning ways to stabilize the population of prairie
songbirds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Dan Gunderson reports.
(Sound of disappearing birds)
The sun tries unsuccessfully to burn a hole in the fog as a government issue
sport utility vehicle pulls to the side of a narrow gravel road in northwest
Early morning traffic hums by on U-S highway two providing background for the
the unseen birds who’s gentle calls fill the morning air.
“We have an extra mosquito head net if you’d like one.”
Christine Vatovic and Katy Brennan are veterans of these early
morning jaunts. They’re research assistants and their job is to find and monitor
the nests of secretive prairie songbirds.
Climbing over a barbed wire fence, they swish through the knee high
dew covered grass, looking for a small plastic flag that marks a nearly invisible
nest, on the ground under the thick vegetation.
“Oh wow, just hatched, I’ve never seen one that young before.”
The naked clay colored sparrow nestling is no bigger than a nickel and nearly
invisible against the dry brown grass of the nest.
The odds are about 50-50 this baby bird will be eaten before it’s old enough to fly
away from the nest.
Researchers believe as the birds nest on smaller grassland areas that remain
among the farm fields, they may be more susceptible to predators.
But what animals eat songbirds, and how often are nests destroyed. Until
recently those questions remained mostly a mystery.
After all, it’s tough to watch a nest that can’t be seen an arms length away.
Enter researcher Pam Pietz
“And this little thing is a black and white ccd board camera.”
The camera is about an inch and a half square, with a camouflage paint job.
“These are similar to the cameras used in security systems but have
been modified for outdoor use with waterproof housing and also for night
A small cable runs to a battery powered VCR about 50 yards away. The system
captures four frames per second, 24 hours on each video tape.
Over the past three years the cameras have captured 70 predator attacks on
grassland songbird nests,
providing a wealth of information for researchers, including the identity of some
“The white tail deer is one of the most surprising to people because I
don’t think people expect deer to eat meat.”
The cameras have documented four cases where deer eat the young birds. The
tapes also show ground squirrels, mice, fox, badger and many other predators
taking nestlings, and sometimes
eating the parents too.
Pam Pietz says as a bird lover it’s sad to watch the nestlings destroyed
but as a scientist it’s a thrill.
“I mean you feel like a bit of a peeping tom here. You’re looking at
things few people have ever got to witness and it’s exciting to view those
events as macabre as they may be.”
Pietz says she doubts any predator specifically hunts prairie songbirds. Because
so many different predators show up on camera, she thinks in most cases they
simply happen upon the well hidden
nest and take advantage of the free lunch.
That means it’s unlikely songbirds can be protected from predators by fencing
nesting areas or trapping specific predators.
Pam Pietz says that leaves one obvious solution.
“If you have very little habitat for them to nest and they’re hit hard by
predators then you have a problem. As we’ve said managing the predators
is not likely to work for songbirds so the only hope for maintaining their
populations is making sure there’s adequate habitat.”
Experts say? Prairie songbirds are adaptable, they will quickly move in when
farmland is planted with conservation reserve program grasses.
It appears the birds are most successful in larger grassland areas, researchers
hope to learn how to manage habitat so the disappearing prairie songbirds will
have a chance flourish in the future.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Dan Gunderson.