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Natural Heritage Elements - Species Level

Grassland and Bird Habitat 


                 Birds that rely on grassland habitat for their survival in Vermont include Henslow's Sparrow and Sedge Wren, both endangered species; Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow, both state-threatened species; Vesper Sparrow, an uncommon breeder in Vermont; and Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, and Eastern Meadowlark, considered common but with declining populations. Other bird, mammal, and invertebrate species use grasslands as well, but the above suite is commonly used for conservation planning purposes because these birds are rare, their populations are declining, and they require grassland habitat to survive and reproduce. These species vary in their habitat requirements, but in general, they require open lands dominated by grasses, sedges, and broadleaf herbs with little or no woody vegetation. 

                Today, most of Vermont 's grassland habitats occur in the Champlain Valley and, to a lesser extent, in the Connecticut River Valley and the area around Lake Memphremagog . There are other grasslands of various types and sizes scattered across the rest of the state. Most grassland are associated with current or past agricultural practices. There are, however, grasslands that are the result of other human activities and are maintained for specific purposes. These include grasslands associated with airports (commercial and private), landfills, fairgrounds, and industrial complexes. Most of Vermont 's grasslands are in private ownership, although the state and federal government own small areas of this habitat. 



                 Since a probable historic high during the agricultural boom of the 1800s, populations of grassland birds have declined substantially in Vermont , primarily as a result of habitat loss. Habitat loss has resulted from forest succession after farm abandonment, changes in current agriculture practices, and residential, commercial, and industrial development. Other potential threats include the extensive use of agricultural pesticides and changes in wintering habitats outside of Vermont . 

                Conversion of natural grasslands elsewhere in the Northeast and the Midwest led to the decline of grassland birds in their historic natural habitats and has prompted Vermont , and the Northeast in general, to take on a greater role in the conservation of grassland birds. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) has designated grassland birds as a priority species in Vermont  


Conservation Goals

                 Actively managed landscapes play a critical role in the persistence of these species in light of the loss of natural grasslands. Maintaining managed grasslands, where possible and appropriate, in a manner compatible with grassland bird nesting is currently considered the most effective strategy for grassland bird conservation in the Northeast. 

                A town or planning group might adopt goals like these for conservation of grassland bird habitat. 

1.        Where appropriate, encourage management of existing grasslands larger than five acres, including artificial habitats, in a manner compatible with successful grassland bird nesting. 

2.        Identify and maintain or increase populations of rare grassland birds in the town.  


Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources  

        See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

         Vermont Center for Geographic Information: The Center has digital orthophotos and land use/land cover GIS data that is helpful in identifying large grassland areas.

         Vermont Mapping Program: The Vermont Department of Taxes administers this program and supplies each town (by law) with two sets of 1:5000 scale orthophoto printouts for its geographic area. They also sell digital format orthophotos (on CD-ROM) and will do custom printouts of orthophotos (and some spatial data layers) at other scales for a fee.

         Audubon Vermont: This organization coordinates surveys for grassland birds, provides outreach to landowners, and works with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and others in habitat management and recovery planning.   

Grassland Bird Habitat Statewide Grassland Bird habitat in Jericho
 Potential Grassland bird habitat based on Land Cover-Land Use data layer  Map shows open lands, natural and artificial, that may be suitable grassland bird habitat.

Interpreting Information  

                Information on the distribution and character of grassland habitat in Vermont is limited. Therefore, it will be necessary to focus on identifying this habitat through field inventories or aerial photography. The value of grassland habitat for grassland birds in Vermont will vary from region to region in the state. Grassland birds are most likely to occur in those parts of the state that have fairly flat topography, which typically is where most agriculture is located. The Champlain Valley , Connecticut River Valley, and parts of Orleans County tend to provide the best opportunities for managing this type of habitat for grassland birds. The size (number of acres) of the habitat is important, as described earlier. Focus on identifying those areas of grassland habitat greater than five acres.    


Mowing Practices for Grassland Birds

The following management guidelines are designed to maximize reproductive success of grassland-nesting birds in an agricultural setting. We recognize that an active farm may be able to only partially implement these guidelines. However, the extent to which they are implemented will determine the benefit to the breeding bird population.

  1. Delay mowing until July 15 each year to minimize loss of eggs and young. Later mowing may allow for the successful fledging of young from late nesters or re-nesting.

  2. Raise mower blades to six inches or more to avoid crushing any remaining nests or young.

  3. Avoid nighttime mowing to reduce the risk of injuring roosting birds.

  4. When not used for high-quality hay, mow fields every 1-3 years. Conversion to cropland will destroy the nesting habitat of grassland birds.

  5. Light to moderate grazing is compatible with most grassland bird species' needs. Consider restricting livestock from fields during nesting season and rotating pastures to provide a varied vegetation structure.

Conservation Strategies

        Once the information on grassland bird habitat has been gathered, specific conservation strategies can be developed that will help achieve the goals. Some examples of strategies related to each goal follow. Note: As with planning for the conservation of all natural heritage elements, implementing strategies for conserving grassland bird habitat should be done with consideration of other elements. It is not recommended that new artificial grasslands be created solely for the purpose of supporting grassland birds, nor is it recommended that strategies be implemented in areas with sensitive species or natural communities with conflicting needs. It is recommended that you contact the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and Audubon Vermont to discuss the importance of your town or area of interest to statewide grassland bird conservation efforts.  


1. Goal: Where appropriate, encourage management of existing grasslands larger than five acres, including artificial habitats, in a manner compatible with successful grassland bird nesting.  


        a. Establish compatible management practices on town-owned grasslands, such as the lawns of the town hall, school, recreation fields, and fairgrounds. Establish a demonstration site where appropriate management practices are employed and the virtues explained to the public by way of kiosks, signs, or other interpretive materials. 

        b. Provide incentives to private landowners for the compatible management of grasslands. USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service administers the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) that provides funds and technical assistance to private landowners for improving wildlife habitat. Similarly, the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners through voluntary cooperative agreements. Former agricultural land is increasingly being kept open for the preservation of view; this situation provides a great opportunity to manage habitat for grassland birds without any of the financial or technical constraints sometimes associated with agricultural operations. 

        c. In site plan review, require large expanses of grasslands proposed for industrial or commercial developments to follow sound grassland bird management guidelines. 


2. Goal: Identify and maintain or increase populations of rare/uncommon grassland birds in the town or area of interest.  


        a. Participate in or establish annual monitoring of grassland bird populations. 

        b. Include protection of rare species habitat in your town plan. 

        c. Use site plan review to evaluate if any rare grassland bird populations will be affected by proposed development.    



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