Working Lands: A New York Farm Owner Manages Fields For Grassland Birds

Gail W. Miller's 174-year-old farm is worth the upkeep to protect grassland birds such as bobolinks.  

Leaning barns, for-sale signs, and hay bales stacked as high and long as boxcars strew the fields east of Lake Ontario. Gail W. Miller steers her Jeep off the paved road and bumps over a newly mown sweep of fresh green shoots. Her field doesn’t look so different from others around New York’s Jefferson County, except that the barn is plumb, there are no bales in sight, and the sign at the edge identifies this as a refuge for grassland birds.

“Here in the Chaumont area, most of these farms had a pretty tough time,” Miller says. “The land tends to be clay and shallow.” Bare flats of limestone crop out of the grass. “At the top of the rise, where it gently goes up, the soil is eight feet deep.” She knows because she buried a horse there the day before.

Miller’s family has owned these 178 acres since 1838. Her ancestors were among the veterans of the War of 1812 who settled the Great Lakes border region. They made a living milking cows and cutting hay for a century and a half. Her father worked the land into his eighties. He passed the fields to Miller and her sister, Edith Warner, whose careers took them away from Chaumont and farming. But the place never lost its hold on them.

Miller, 68, moved back home in 1994 and, despite income from jobs as a college administrator and now as a real estate agent, she found it difficult to pay the property taxes. Haying leases brought in some money, and she planted about a hundred grapevines, attempting to join an upstate New York winery movement. But the labor was too much to manage alone, so she looked to other options.

“We could sell the farm off and I probably wouldn’t have to worry again, because if I sold it lot by lot, I wouldn’t have to be struggling,” she says. “On the other hand, I saw how hard my father worked on the farm, and I saw how much it mattered to him, and I just can’t do that.”

She heard from a county agricultural agent about a partnership of landowners, Audubon New York, and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to manage fields to allow grasshopper sparrows, eastern meadowlarks, northern harriers, bobolinks, and other grassland birds to fledge successfully. As the fields of faltering farms revert to forest or are displaced by development, these ground nesters have sustained some of the steepest population declines of any group of birds in North America. On remaining agricultural grasslands, early season hay-making destroys nests and sometimes kills adult birds.

Miller submitted an application, and Audubon drafted a management plan that allows mowing only after August 15, when the chicks have safely fledged and migratory birds have moved on. Fields would be mowed in rotation, with a third of the enrolled acres cut each year, and hedgerows would be kept at bay. Miller opted in. A hay grower’s daughter after all, she loves the sight of tall grass waving in the westerlies off Lake Ontario and dislikes the idea of her family’s land going to brush as much as the thought of it going to housing lots. Compensation of $55 an acre, administered by the DEC, helps her break even on taxes and carrying costs.

The plan also stirred her sense of something lost. “I remember my father being terribly concerned about nests when he was mowing,” she says. He would raise the cutter bar over them, and her mother taught her about local birds. “When I was a child they were just everywhere. The killdeer? You would trip over their babies. This program has really allowed us to believe that we can keep this open for grassland birds. 

The male bobolink is black and white with a striking yellow nape and a pinballing song. The female is plainer and sparrowlike. Every spring they make a 6,000-mile migration from South America to the northern United States and southern Canada. About 20 percent of the world’s breeding bobolinks nest in the checkerboard of active and remnant farm fields in the lower Great Lakes/St. Lawrence plains area. Jefferson County is a hotbed for grassland birds, says Marcelo del Puerto, the private lands and habitat unit leader for the DEC’s Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources. Miller’s fields constitute five percent of the acreage that the DEC and Audubon are helping owners in her region manage for grassland species, says del Puerto. Statewide, 26 landowners, with parcels totaling more than 2,600 acres, have been enrolled since the program began in 2005. 

Mike Burger, Audubon New York’s conservation and science director, believes these fields are already contributing to bobolink viability. “We determined that their breeding density was at least five times greater on our project sites than it was on randomly selected grasslands,” he says.

As Miller surveys her land, she stops to look through a pair of vintage Nikon binoculars she keeps in the Jeep. The mottled hard-shell glasses belonged to her mother. Watching a northern harrier rise and dodge on a pushy wind, Miller says, “They’re elegant to watch. They just are.” Over swaying timothy, milkweed, and goldenrod, the hawk flaps, brakes, and drops feet first into the grass.

“When we save those birds,” she says, “they belong to the world. They don’t just belong to me as a landowner.”

This story originally ran in the May-June issue as, “Making Hay.” 

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)

Range and habitat: Breeds in meadows, prairies, and hayfields of the northern U.S. and southern Canada, mostly east of the Rockies. A long-distance migrant, it winters on grasslands in southern South America.

Status: Surveys suggest that the overall population has been declining at about 2 percent per year for more than four decades.

Outlook: With natural habitats becoming scarcer, management of hayfield nesting sites will be critical to the bobolink’s future.—Kenn Kaufman