The grasslands of Texas and Oklahoma should be alive with Painted Buntings, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Northern Bobwhite, and other birds. But poor management practices like overgrazing have turned much of the prairie into subpar habitat. Bobwhite numbers in some parts have dropped as much as 57 percent in the last 10 years. Other grassland species, including the monarch butterfly, have also declined steeply.
Enlisting local land- owners and biologists, the new Grassland Restoration Incentive Program aims to stem or reverse the decline of native-prairie habitat and help bring back the quail and many other species that depend on a healthy grassland ecosystem. The program is part of the Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture, a coalition of state and federal agencies and nonprofit groups like ABC.
The program gives landowners financial incentives and expert advice on how to apply better management techniques to their land. Techniques include prescribed burning, proper grazing and fencing, brush clearing, and planting native grasses instead of Bermuda grass and other imports.
Setting fires can be a tough sell, but prescribed burns keep grasslands open for both birds and native plants. Chopping down woody invasive plants and removing exotic grasses also make space for native species, which tend to be more drought-resistant and higher in nutrients — better for grazing cattle. Large herds of bison and deer once frequented the prairie, and cattle can be a healthy part of the landscape if they don’t overgraze it.
Bobwhites aren’t the only species to benefit from such work. A robust prairie ecosystem supports forbs, broad-leafed flowering plants that bees and other pollinators feed on. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs only on species of milkweed. And Northern Bobwhite and other native birds need thick clumps of grass for nesting sites and a healthy plant community where they can forage for seeds and insects. What’s good for the birds can be good for butterflies and people, too.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2016 issue of BirdWatching.
The American Bird Conservancy is a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.
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