Bringing Back the Grassland Birds
NOTE: This is a guest blog post from Teva Harrison of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
This spring, we sponsored an action on The Petition Site asking you to support work that gives burrowing owls, one of Canada’s most endangered species, habitat in which they can thrive. The response from this site was inspiring. Today, I’m excited to share a good news story from the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in Saskatchewan.
Old Man on His Back (OMB) is one of the best remaining examples of Canada’s precious mixed grassland habitat. A haven for pronghorns — a species rarely seen by most Canadians — the mixed grassland is also habitat for a number of species at risk, including burrowing owl, swift fox, Sprague’s pipit, loggerhead shrike, greater sage-grouse and northern leopard frog.
It’s been eight years since a burrowing owl was last spotted nesting at OMB. So imagine NCC Stewardship Representative Bob Santo’s surprise this August when he spotted one while moving cattle from one pasture to the next.
Bob saw a small owl fly out of the grass, startled by the herd of cattle. Even with a brief sighting he was pretty sure it was a burrowing owl. “I mentally marked the location where it landed in the grass and came back right after the cattle were moved.” He said, “I walked to within ten metres of where I thought the owl was and noticed it looking at me. Then it squawked and flew back to its burrow. Hopefully it will return next year.”
OMB is a working ranch that has been an NCC conservation area since 1996. In December of 2003, fifty plains bison were transported to the 13,000-acre (5,300-hectare) mixed grass prairie at OMB. The introduction of this genetically pure conservation herd fulfilled NCC’s vision of reintroducing the native grazer to the site with the goal of maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. This year, 32 calves were born in May and June.
Ranching can be beneficial to grassland birds, many of which build their nests in the uneven grass left behind after grazing, or use tufts of bison fur to line their nests. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is conducting ongoing research at OMB, where they are studying at-risk grassland birds and their interaction with cattle and bison.
Although grassland bird populations have shown steeper, more geographically widespread and more consistent decline than any other category of North American species WCS’s research has shown that OMB is a great place to observe grassland birds. The group has also found that grassland birds that are rare elsewhere — such as chestnut-collared longspur, Baird’s sparrow, horned lark, savannah sparrow, McGowan’s longspur and Sprague’s pipit — are more commonplace at OMB. They have captured a number of these species here and installed geo-locators on the birds to track their activity over the summer, fall and winter. The hope is to recapture the same birds next spring and download information from the geo-locators.
The long-term management of habitat is critical if we’re going to safeguard Canada’s natural spaces. When it comes to protecting wildlife habitat, acquiring land is just the beginning. Old Man on His Back is an excellent example of what can be accomplished when conservation lands are managed well for the benefit of the species that depend on them for survival and for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.
Photo by Nature Conservancy of Canada.