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Molnar: Saving The Bobolinks

I used to love the sights and smells of fresh-mown fields, the open land, birds soaring, searching for fallen seeds. It was beautiful and productive, man and nature in perfect harmony.

Now when I see a cut field, I think of the crushed eggs of my favorite birds – the bobolinks - and the death of their future. Where I once saw productivity I now see desolation. 

Bobolinks – so named because of their bubbly song - were once the monarchs of the meadow, elegant in their black and cream plumage and puffy yellow heads. Today they’re in steep decline. The just released new edition of the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas notes that bobolink numbers have plummeted 75 percent from 1966 to 2007… and who knows how much more since.

I have seen the decline firsthand. Each spring fewer birds return to our fields, victims of a perfect storm of negative conditions. The birds build their nests, lay their eggs, and raise their young in the long grass of open fields. Where once Vermont was three quarters fields and one-quarter forest, it’s now the reverse. Furthermore, most of the remaining fields are used for haying, and to get the best quality hay, the fields are cut two or three times a season. Which means that an entire season of breeding is shredded in the blades.

Things are even worse for the birds in their wintering grounds in South America, an astounding 6,200-mile trip for the one- to two-ounce birds. Pesticides used on rice, even if not intended for the birds, are extremely toxic to them, as is widespread development.

These conditions affect not only bobolinks. All the migrating birds that populate our fields and forests for part of the year are being threatened. So it’s fair to wonder why I should bemoan the decline of bobolinks so specifically.

I must confess I have no good scientific reason, but our house is surrounded by acres of meadow. Not being farmers, we can afford to cut the fields just once at the end of the season. Only a few years ago, a walk in early summer would send up clouds of the birds, filling the air with soaring beauty and jubilant song. The same walk last summer sent up only lonely individuals, their music more like a mournful dirge.

Some efforts to rescue the bobolinks look promising.

The Bobolink Project, based at the UVM and the University of Connecticut, is one creative approach. Until the end of April, it accepts pledges from individuals, with a money back guarantee, to pay farmers to leave fields uncut until the birds leave.

In the meantime, I’ll plan on taking a long walk through an uncut meadow this coming June. I’ll let the bobolink’s color fill my eyes and their sounds my ears. And I’ll fall in love with them all over again.

Martha L. Molnar is a public relations and freelance writer who moved to Vermont in 2008. She was formerly a New York Times reporter.
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