How Farmers In New England Make Hay for Bobolinks

Grassland birds in the Northeast face growing pressures. Programs that pay farmers to help them offer both a boost.
A male Bobolink at Wagner Ranch in Bridport, Vermont, one of two dozen farms enrolled in a project to save grassland bird habitat in the Northeast.

When Amy Musante catches the bubbly song of the Bobolink in spring, she hops into her SUV at dawn and heads to a hayfield on her 185-acre farm in western Massachusetts. She likes to watch the birds as the sun comes up, tinting Day Mountain in the middle distance a rosy orange color. “You always hear them before you see them,” says Musante, who moved east from California five years ago to revive her family’s operation. 

Musante has more than a passing interest in the striking black-and-white birds. She is participating in an effort to help the ground-nesters successfully breed. Among the longest-migrating songbirds in the Western Hemisphere, Bobolinks travel from wintering grounds as far south as Argentina’s rice fields and nest in U.S. and Canada grasslands. Centuries ago, the birds moved into the Northeast as forests were cleared for farmland. At first, they thrived. But later, as farmers began mowing hayfields more often, tractors interrupted the 9- to 11-week window that the birds need for nesting and fledging. The machines’ blades destroy nests, kill baby birds, or bury them under mounds of hay.

In recent years, a solution has emerged: paying farmers to protect Bobolinks and other grassland birds, such as Savannah Sparrows, while they are most vulnerable. Musante is one of 24 farmers in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and Maine who this year are participating in the Bobolink Project. Typically, farmers prefer to mow their fields when the hay’s protein content and yield are both high, as that makes for the best feed. Often this occurs in June, when Bobolinks have already started to breed. The program pays farmers a per-acre fee (about $50 in 2021) to idle their tractors during a 75-day window timed to the birds’ nesting period, which varies from state to state.  

“There are some participants who are interested in birds and who might delay mowing their fields even if they didn’t get paid for it,” says Jon Atwood, director of bird conservation at Mass Audubon, which runs the Bobolink Project with Audubon Vermont and New Hampshire Audubon. “But there are other farmers who would just have to go out and mow their fields in order to make their business plan work. Regardless of motivation, the fact that there are farmers who are willing to modify their practices for the good of grassland-nesting birds is pretty cool.”

In 2021 the initiative will protect 1,159 acres of nesting habitat using funds contributed by private donors—a model that grew out of an economics research project that conservation groups took over in 2016. Every year, however, there is twice as much farmer interest as there are donations to fund the payments, a trend Atwood calls exciting and frustrating. This year they plan to team up with a similar program in Maine called Ag Allies, as well as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other groups, to pool strategies for scaling up. Beyond that, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service also offers farmers incentives to delay their hay production for a shorter period of 65 days. While the federal payments are higher, they are capped at three years—whereas farmers can reapply for the Bobolink Project’s funding again each year.

Bobolinks need all the help they can get. The species, like many other grassland birds, faces major challenges across its full range as its numbers have steadily declined. In the Northeast region, development, sprawl, and reforestation have all encroached on Bobolink habitat. In Vermont, for instance, the number of dairy farms dropped from 11,200 in the 1940s to 1,200 in 2007 to only 700 today. 

Climate change is also a complicating factor for most conservation plans. Biologist Noah Perlut, for example, recently found that the timing of the first cut of hay is shifting earlier in spring as rising temperatures prompt grasses to emerge sooner. Bobolink breeding, which may be keyed to light availability, remains unchanged. “There’s this mismatch where farmers are responding to a changing climate but the birds are not,” he says. 

Perlut, an ecologist at the University of New England, raises awareness on the properties where he conducts research. At Vermont’s Shelburne Farms, a nonprofit environmental education center and a 1,400-acre working farm, he has studied breeding Bobolinks for two decades. Sam Dixon, the dairy farm manager, adjusts the mowing schedule on roughly 300 acres without any incentive payments, accommodating 100 Bobolink nests each season. “I’ve been here 25 years, and this is the most interesting and rewarding thing I’ve done on the farm,” says Dixon. 

More recently Perlut has expanded his surveying and banding of Bobolinks on fields within 15 miles of Shelburne. His goal is to understand the birds’ life cycles within the context of agriculture, identifying management plans that balance the needs of birds and farmers. For his study, dubbed “Bobolink Odyssey,” he developed a novel tool: Bobolink cards. Like a baseball card, each features a photograph of a specific Bobolink, with details about its birthplace, ancestors, migration, and breeding location—most fledglings return to the general area to breed. “That changes the way farmers think about the animals they are stewarding and gives them a sense of pride,” he says.

Musante, who is now busy ramping up her organic egg, beekeeping, and honey business, knows that she could earn more by aggressively cutting her hayfields. But the compensation to delay mowing one-third of her farm makes it possible for her to protect the birds she enjoys and values. She says: “When I came across the Bobolink Project, I was like, ‘Oh my god, they are giving me money for something I want to do?’ ”

This story originally ran in the Summer 2021 issue as “Make Hay for Bobolinks.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.