Grassland Birds

A little knowledge can go a long way in helping these amazing birds survive and thrive

Me: “It has to be right here!”
Bernadette: “It will be. Take your time, move slowly, and make sure you only take a step forward if you’re certain you won’t step on it.”
Me: [After 10 minutes of methodically scanning the same 3 square feet of ground] “I can’t find it. Seriously, this is either impossible or there is nothing here.”

Trying to find a grasshopper sparrow nest in a hayfield is very much like….well…why not—like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s on the ground, camouflaged with an overhead dome made from the same grasses growing around it, and the interior is barely the size of a ping pong ball. Thankfully, I was accompanied by an expert nest-finder.

Bernadette: [walks over and nonchalantly points at an inconspicuous clump of grass] “It’s right there.”
Me: [motionless with a bewildered look on my face] “……”

At first glance, you might look out over a field of brome or timothy grass and think that spotting a few birds there would be easy compared to, say, finding one nesting 70 feet up in a dense forest canopy. It’s just grass—where would they hide?! Well, it turns out that the uniformity of these grassy habitats creates an almost dizzying complexity. There’s rarely a single point of reference to work from when you’re trying to home in on that spot where you think you saw a bird disappear down into the grasses. If you’re lucky enough to get close to that spot, you still have to confront the likelihood that upon landing, that grassland bird went for a little stroll to wherever its nest actually is. Once you’ve acknowledged the thousands of years of evolution working against you, it’s probably best to break for lunch.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with a number of different types (or guilds) of birds throughout my career, including aerial insectivores (think of fast-flying swifts and swallows), shorebirds (adorable plovers and sandpipers), and montane cloud-forest birds (tanagers, thrushes and trogons). But stepping foot into Virginia’s grasslands has been an entirely new and rewarding experience. I had no idea the amount of life that’s teeming amidst a field of grass.

Grasshopper sparrow

Red-winged blackbird

Savannah sparrow

Small changes to farming practices can have a big, positive impact on grassland birds. For example, slightly adjusting the timing of hayfield mowing in the spring can ensure much higher rates of grassland birds fledging their young during the vulnerable nesting season. Image credit (left to right): Bernadette Ridgely, Hugh Kenny, Amy Johnson

The chance to explore this habitat with grassland bird researchers has been for me like lifting an opaque curtain to discover a bustling scene of activity. A family of eastern meadowlarks scavenging about for arthropods. A female bobolink quietly incubating her clutch of eggs. A covey of northern bobwhite quail hiding from a hawk passing overhead. And of course, that assemblage will change throughout the seasons to include short-eared owls and northern harriers hunting for field mice in late autumn, and horned larks plucking seeds from wheat grasses in the depths of winter. The more you learn and see what is happening in these grasslands, the faster you arrive at the pivotal question: Who else doesn’t know about this? And that’s where we start to run into a big problem…

Over the last century, our native grasslands—once a vast “sea of grass”— have been steadily converted into agricultural lands. Farmland now covers more than 8 million acres just here in the state of Virginia. This conversion has taken its toll on grassland bird species that need that habitat for safe nesting grounds during spring, shelter throughout harsh winter months, a stopover site to refuel during migration, and other parts of their life cycle. With the advancement of modern agricultural machinery, widespread use of biocides, and increased consumer demands adding more pressure on these lands, grassland birds have experienced a steeper decline than any other guild of birds. Here in Virginia, our iconic northern bobwhite and eastern meadowlarks, for example, have lost more than 75 percent of their population.

Yet amidst these worrisome trends, nature can be incredibly resilient, and across the country, a suite of grassland birds continue to make a go of it on active farmlands that, while not these birds’ native habitat, offer a surrogate habitat. Excitingly, research is showing us that with specific management practices, these working lands can serve the needs of grassland birds while still being fully functional farms. With the majority of Virginia’s remaining grasslands privately owned and under agricultural use, the onus for grassland conservation has fallen largely on those landowners and producers. They have become the guardians of one of our most endangered ecosystems and the wildlife that comes along with it.

Creating a functional and resilient agroecosystem, however, can be a complex conservation challenge, and we’re going to need all hands on deck to make it work well. And so in early 2021, The Piedmont Environmental Council and Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes launched the Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative, with a mission to partner with farmers on their working landscapes to implement best management practices that simultaneously stem the tide of grassland bird decline, improve the resiliency of the landscape, and positively impact the livelihoods that depend upon those lands.

Image by Jacob Gilley

Image by Amy Johnson

I was offered the chance to coordinate the initiative—an amazing opportunity to work at the confluence of science, conservation, and agriculture, and to be a part of a much bigger team helping give Virginia farmers the tools and resources they need to be leaders in sustainable land management and environmental stewardship.

The Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative has since brought on as core partners the American Farmland Trust and Quail Forever, with collective expertise in science and research, best management practices, regenerative agriculture, technical assistance, and a long history of fostering good working relationships with Virginia’s landowners. The initiative is offering a start-to-finish pathway to beneficial conservation practices tailored to each landowners’ individual working landscapes. And to achieve larger-scale environmental protection, we are sharing knowledge and unifying messaging with regional partners, collaborators, and stakeholders.

Through these efforts to conserve grassland birds, we concurrently enrich our soils, improve the health of our watersheds, and build back biodiversity on our landscapes. We will not be able to recover all of the native grassland that has been lost, but we can adapt our hayfields, live-stock pastures, and croplands to function as healthy and resilient ecosystems that are favorable to our native wildlife. This is the win-win compromise that we all want.


By Justin Proctor, Piedmont Grassland Bird Initiative coordinator, Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes. This story appeared in The Piedmont Environmental Council’s member newsletter, The Piedmont View. If you’d like to become a PEC member or renew your membership, please visit pecva.org/join.