New MSU study: bird habitats clearly in our 'fields' of vision


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Posted: 5/5/2006


Privately owned Southeastern forests and farmlands that produce food and fiber products for growing global markets also can provide essential habitats for grassland birds and hundreds of other wildlife species.

Numerous factors, including farm consolidation, single-crop production, wetland loss, and intensive forest management, have contributed, however, to an overall lack of landscape diversity. As a result, the wildlife has fewer places to exist and thrive.

Agricultural producers can enhance farmlands for grassland birds by providing habitat as part of a comprehensive resource management system. Mississippi State scientists recently completed a study that illustrates how agricultural producers can successfully incorporate conservation buffers into their production systems.

In the report, professionals in the university's Forest and Wildlife Research Center discovered that conservation buffers strategically located within or at the edge of crop fields can provide a practical, cost-effective protection against the effects of weather and human activities. As an example, they point to field borders, which are intentionally managed, non-crop herbaceous plant communities along crop field edges.

The study measured the effects of field borders on populations of breeding and wintering grassland birds and Northern bobwhite in the Black Belt prairie of Northeast Mississippi. During the summer breeding season, the study focused on 53 species.

"The six most abundant species were red-winged blackbird, indigo bunting, dickcissel, mourning dove, Northern cardinal, and common grackle," said Wes Burger, wildlife and fisheries professor and avian ecologist.

"Dickcissel and indigo bunting were nearly twice as abundant where field borders were established," he added.

Burger said this is important since the last two decades in the prairie region have seen dickcissels decline by 4 percent per year; buntings, by 1.5 percent.

As Burger explained, field borders provide plant communities along existing wooded edges that make these areas favorable for foraging, loafing and nesting. Field borders can enhance the value of adjacent forested habitats by providing foraging habitat for the bunting, which primarily is a forest bird.

The winter portion of MSU's bird survey observed 71 species. Of the more than 17,500 individual birds viewed, the five most abundant species were the red-winged blackbird, American pipit, song sparrow, Savannah sparrow, and American robin.

Among these, survey team members noted that wintering sparrows were the most responsive single group to the presence of field borders.

"Most sparrows are ground foragers and their use of habitats often depends on vegetation structure," said Mark Smith, a post-doctoral assistant in wildlife and fisheries. "We found that field borders could enhance the value of existing grasslands and crop fields by producing additional foraging habitat, and by providing escape cover in close proximity to waste-grain food sources."

Burger said a related study has found that 20-to-30-foot fallow field borders can nearly double bobwhite populations while also increasing many times over the number of breeding and wintering grassland songbirds.

He warned that the economic costs of taking even narrow strips of land from production must first be given serious consideration by producers. Still, he said, the MSU investigation found that removal of low-yielding field margins from production and their subsequent enrollment in government subsidized conservation programs ultimately could be more profitable than planting the same acreage.

"While there are many factors that influence whether buffers are more profitable than cropping the same acreage, the good news is that farmers do not have to choose one over the other," Burger said.

"Farm operators can implement cost effective resource management practices to maintain and enhance a diverse bird population," he emphasized. "This also can provide environmental benefits such as erosion control, herbicide retention and water quality enhancement."

NEWS EDITORS/DIRECTORS: For additional information, contact Dr. Burger at (662) 325-8782 or

Wildlife and Fisheries