Image by stock photo from Tim Kennelty

Learn about Grassland Birds on Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley

Episode 28: Grassland Birds

Learn all about Grassland Birds from ornithologist and Master Gardener Volunteer, Kathryn Schneider. In this episode, she cover what types of birds to look for in grasslands, the habitat they like, and how to protect them. Then Master Gardener Jean Thomas returns with another edition of “It’s All Greek” where she opines on garden perennial favorites (Phlox and Rudbeckia). Enjoy!

Guest: Dr. Kathryn Schneider

Production Support: Linda Aydlett and Teresa Golden


Grassland Birds:  Birding the Hudson Valley: Schneider, Kathryn J.: 9781611687187: Books ; Grass01 ( ; North American Grasslands & Birds Report | Audubon ; Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds | Audubon New York

Phlox and Rudbeckia (Jean Thomas in It’s All Greek): Tall garden phlox | UMN Extension ; Resource008055_Rep11756.pdf ( ; Woodland Phlox, Phlox divaricata – Wisconsin Horticulture ; Rudbeckia fulgida (Black-eyed Susan, Orange Coneflower) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox ( ; Plants for Water Wise Pollinator Gardens: Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) – Water Conservation for Lawn and Landscape ( ; Plants for Water Wise Pollinator Gardens: Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) – Water Conservation for Lawn and Landscape (

Recording: Sent by Linda


Welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Our team's goal is to present science based information about gardening and all things nature in New York's Hudson Valley. Hosts Jean and Tim, along with team members, Teresa: and Linda, are Master Gardener Volunteers for New York's Columbia and Greene counties. So if you're interested in gardening or nature or nuggets of information about what's happening outside your door, settle in, enjoy the conversation. Whatever the season, we have something to say.

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Tim: Hi, I'm Tim Kennelty.

Jean: And I'm Jean Thomas.

Jean: And welcome to another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. I'm pretty excited, Jean, you know why?

Jean: Yes.

Tim: You do. You do because you read the script, right? Kathy Schneider is here again. Kathryn Schneider, our wonderful bird expert, Master Gardener volunteer and Dr. Kathryn Schneider to talk about grassland birds.

Jean: And author of a book about birds of the Hudson Valley.

Tim: Yeah absolutely. But she's going to talk about grassland birds, which are really unique. They're fairly rare because their habitats are disappearing. They need a lot of grassland. We're talking about bobolinks and meadowlarks and a bunch of different sparrows and she's gonna talk all about how to conserve them.

Jean: Yeah, because they're not the most careful nesting things.

Tim: No, they nest on the ground.

Jean: Yeah, right on the ground. And when the farmers come through making the hay, that's it.

Jean: Yep. Well, so she's going to talk all about grassland birds and where you can see them and how you can conserve them.

Jean: And what you can say to the local farmer to make him wait before he does his haying.

Tim: There you go, I can't wait. And you're back again. You're always back again, aren't you. Your back. She's back with another episode of It's All Greek to Me, right ? What are you talking about today, Jean?

Jean: Well, I've decided to be a little bit mellower.

Tim: That's not possible, is it?

Tim: Yeah. What are you talking about talking about?

Jean: We're talking about the most common perennials that we're all used to and we don't think about their names.

Tim: Names are important.

Jean: So we got to think about their names. I mean, when we talk about things like peonies do we think that's a funny word?

Tim: It is a funny word, but people don't think that.

Jean: No, people just don't get it.

Tim: No, I know. I can't wait.

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Tim: Hi, I'm Tim Kennelty.

Jean: And I'm Jean Thomas, and welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Today we're talking to Master Gardener Volunteer Kathryn Schneider. Kathryn, you may remember is our favorite bird expert. She's an avid birder, has a PhD in ornithology, and she's even written a book called Birding the Hudson Valley. Today we're talking to Kathryn about grassland birds. Kathryn,we're always happy to see you and welcome.

Kathryn: Thank you.

Jean: Let's start with a definition. I love definitions. Can you tell us a little about which birds are grassland birds?

Kathryn: Well, these are birds that require grassland habitat, that is places where the grasses are the dominant vegetation type and they use this for nesting and feeding. In New York, this includes birds like northern harrier, eastern meadowlark, bobolinks, Savannah sparrow, American kestrel, eastern bluebird, and many others. About 20 to 30 species, depending on what part of the state you live in. For hundreds of years, these birds were here using grassy clearings like dunes and marshes for habitat. The Native Americans also created habitat for them, where they burned areas to attract deer, but the natural habitat here is actually forested. Over time, this habitat became more common and probably reached its peak in the 1800s when European settlers came and began to clear the land even more for family farms, crops, hay fields and pastures. Once family farms began to be abandoned, natural reforestation would be taken over, along with changing agricultural practices, and the grassland habitat that humans had created became less common. And since that time, grassland birds have declined dramatically.

Tim: So Kathryn, it's great to see you. I've had the pleasure of seeing some of these birds and some of our local conservation areas, the bobolinks are just amazing. They're so totally cool. And I know that they have certain requirements, especially for breeding and they're not all the same requirements. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what they need to breed?

Kathryn: Well, the grassland habitats provide different resources for different kinds of birds. So for example, the northern Harriers and shorter owls are predators. They're vole specialists, they feed on meadow voles, and they eat these small rodents that live in the grass, especially in winter. Grasslands with thatch, that is dead grass debris that falls over, provides vole habitat. Think grass that accumulates on the ground when it dies. Some birds seem to prefer to have some bare ground or soil. For example, kill deers and horned larks. Hansel sparrows, on the other hand, like the field that's been fallow for a couple of years and has some old dead grass stems sticking up for song perches. And meadowlarks and bobolinks use shrubs and nearby trees or fence posts for song perches. Many grassland birds select a field that has mixed of different grasses with a small number of broadleaf plants or forbs mixed in. Different heights of vegetation helps. Some grass that is tall, 20 inches or so, or some that is short, five to 10 inches or so allows for good insect foraging. These birds need insects. Insects are high protein and that is what they feed their babies. They need grasslands that provide nesting material and protective cover. Most of these birds nest on the ground. The size of the grassland is also really important for some birds just to get enough food. We say some of these birds are area sensitive. A grassland of 10 acres of more is likely to only support birds like bobolinks and Savannah sparrows, The bird diversity increases as the size the grassland gets bigger. Bigger is always better when it comes to grassland birds.

Tim: So when we're talking about these really large areas of grasslands, my understanding is there's always going to be some kind of a conflict between kind of agricultural practices and then their breeding needs, right. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kathryn: Yeah, the big problem is that some of the breeding cycles of some of these birds conflict with the existing agricultural practices. For birds to use grassland for successful nesting, it really needs to be unmowed through the whole breeding season. Now all grass on birds are different but some grassland birds are resident year round, but others migrate. In April and May the many of the birds begin to identify territories for breeding. By early June they're nest building and laying eggs. And from mid to late June, they're hatchlings and nestlings on the ground. They don't actually get the ability to fly until early July. And that's when they're able to find cover, escape from predators and feed for themselves. A few species have more than one brood, but most of them don't. When farmers do three cuttings of hay a year, the birds are never able to complete the nesting cycle and fledge their young.

Jean: So are there management techniques and practices that landowners should follow to encourage grassland birds?

Kathryn: Definitely, if you're lucky enough to own a grassland of at least 10 acres, there is a lot you can do. But it depends on why you own the grassland and how you use it. Ideally, we'd just tell people not to mow their fields until mid-July. But that doesn't work for many farmers. For farmers who use their fields to grow hay to feed livestock. There are tradeoffs.

Jean: Like what kind of tradeoffs and why?

Kathryn: Well, early hay that's harvested in May and June has the greatest nutritional value for the for the livestock. It has higher moisture content, more protein, and better digestibility. High quality hay is needed for some kinds of agriculture for calving and milking dairy cows, for example, and for finishing beef cattle. For these people and these farmers, the early hay is really important. Some animals like horses, sheep, some dairy heifers, and mature cattle can tolerate lower quality hay that's harvested later in the season. And of course, low quality hay can be used for bedding, quality doesn't matter. And then so delayed cutting, it's more practical for those kinds of agriculture, we can ask if there are fields that might not need to be mowed early. Maybe there are some fields that are too wet. Let the birds use these fields until July and use late cutting of hay for other purposes. In some areas, farmers can rotate late in early cut fields. So there's always one field that is cut later and or maybe not cut at all. And that's where the birds can be successful.

Jean: And is this happening in some areas? Are people managing this this way?

Kathryn: There are places in the Hudson Valley where grasslands are managed for grassland birds. Five Rivers Environmental Center, for example, has a number of fields that they cut on a three year rotational schedule. One field is not cut every year, and then the other ones are caught so the birds can breed in the uncut fields.

Tim: And is it working?

Kathryn: Yeah, it looks great there. They have bobolinks and Savannah sparrows and the farmers that do harvest that hay but they harvest it in a way that allows some of the birds to survive each year.

Tim: And how do we know it's working? Are you are you doing bird surveys to understand?

Jean: They census the birds every year.

Tim: Okay, great.


So when the birds show up after they're migrating, they don't come back to the same spot every year.

Kathryn: Oh, yeah. Well, they come back to the same general area, the same grassland area, but they don't necessarily need to use the same 10 acres every year.

Jean: Okay, so they come and scope out the whole area, right? Okay, that makes more sense for me.

Kathryn: So I should say that pastures also make good grassland habitat, it doesn't have to be just hay fields. But intensive grazing can reduce the nesting success because of trampling and reduce cover for the birds. Allowing grazing to approximately five inches of height with maybe 50% (that's 10 inches or more) prevents over grazing and actually makes decent nesting cover for the birds as well. So when that rotational grazing is allowable, when there's enough land to do that, that sort of thing, some, some fields can be left follow and not used for grazing until mid-July are not grazed at all. And those are appropriate for grassland birds. So finally, no matter how the grassland is used, it's best if landowners can mow in late summer and let at least some of the grass grow into the fall. Grasslands need to be cut at least once every two or three years to keep woody vegetation and broadleaf plants out to keep grasslands grassy basically grasses grow from the base, they are perennial, so the roots stay alive. But the broadleaf plants or forbs grow from their tips. So if you cut them every year or two, you will be able to keep grasslands as mostly grass. However cutting it too short in the late fall is not particularly good. Because that removes the vole habitat, then you no longer have cover for rodents. And those are our food sources for short eared owls. That fallen over dead grass is where the rodents live for short eared owls and northern harriers. And also the early nesting bird like to have a little bit of tall grass when they start the season particular.

Tim: So it sounds really complex in terms of managing for them because there's so many different needs. And there is this conflict between agriculture and I mean, it's a reasonable conflict between agriculture and managing for them. I assume that they're in decline, like a lot of other bird species. Are there other threats besides the conflict with agriculture?

Kathryn: Yes, after habitat loss on an agricultural conflicts with mowing and livestock that we've already discussed, the next biggest problem is probably predators. These are birds that nest on the ground. So they're particularly vulnerable to predators that steal our eggs, like raccoons, for example, or eat babies like cats. So that's it. We can't do too much about the raccoons, but keeping cats indoors is the best bet to prevent that kind of predation.

Jean: Oh my, cat lovers are not happy. Okay, last time you were here, you talked about the New York State breeding bird Atlas. Is that work? How do we know that the grassland birds are in trouble? Or are there other studies and research as well?

Kathryn: Well, we've completed two New York State breeding bird atlases. I'm working on our third the two that were completed definitely show that grassland birds were in decline, we're pretty sure we'll see a similar population losses when the third one is completed. But there have been other surveys that have documented the decline of grassland birds for many years. The US Fish and Wildlife Service's breeding bird survey has been going on annually for 50 years all over the United States. And that's been showing losses among grassland birds this whole time. In 2019, Ken Rosenberg and his colleagues published a very important paper in Science that got quite a lot of publicity and use dozens of datasets from bird population studies and sophisticated statistical techniques to look at different bird populations. They concluded that in the last 50 years since 1970, three million birds have been lost worldwide. That's about 30% of all birds in the world. This study showed that waterfowl that is ducks and geese, for example, and raptors, hawks in their relatives were actually increasing. That's not too surprising because we've made major conservation strides in those areas. Duck hunters want to protect wetlands for waterfowl, and they've done very well. And raptors have had been the focus of major management programs reintroduction programs, and they're doing well but most of the other bird groups were declining. The grassland birds have declined by about 53% since 1970. And many other groups were also in decline, shorebirds are down by about a third for example.

Tim: Okay, as usual, I'm starting to get a little depressed here. There's something hopeful in terms of conservation efforts. You mentioned one that's starting to work. Are there other efforts that are underway that are starting to really conserve the species?

Kathryn: Well, I'd like to say there are a lot of conservation efforts going on but right now for grassland birds, we're not doing as much as we could. We're certainly raising awareness about the decline and documenting it. And some conservation groups are listening and managing grasslands for these birds. But right now, there's not a lot of money being dedicated to conservation for these species. Most of them are simply not rare enough to make the state and federal endangered species lists. There are a few federal programs that provide incentives to farmers to pay them to do lay mowing. But these are focus areas and most of the focus areas New York and state are in western or Central New York, not in the Hudson Valley. There is a program called the Bobolinks Project that's a similar effort that is run by private conservation is to pay farmers to delay mowing, but that's focused on New England and doesn't include New York. So in New York, most of the programs are run by private conservation organizations and it's farmers who care and do do their mowing voluntarily late in the season that protect the grassland birds here.

Jean: Okay, now's a good time to see some of the grassland birds that breed in our area, right? When are they here for us to see them? And when did they leave and where did they overwinter?

Kathryn: Well, this is a really good time to see grassland birds because they are setting up territories and they're fairly obvious. If you look for them in unmowed hay fields and pastures there's a good chance you'll see bubbling since Savannah sparrows at least some grassland birds spent the winter here, especially the ones that can find food like northern harriers and short eared owls that I mentioned earlier that eat voles. Eastern bluebirds, and a few of the Eastern meadowlarks spend the winter, and a few sparrows stay around in small numbers, but many grassland birds migrate south for the winter, where the living is a lot easier. The bobolinks and upland sandpipers winter in South America, most of the sparrows are in the southern US and Mexico. And the long distance migrants usually leave by September. Sparrows sometimes stay into October however.

Tim: So I bet you cover this in your book your wonderful book, Birding in the Hudson Valley. I do talk about some of the places in the Hudson Valley even south of here to see grassland birds.

Kathryn: There are a few places in the Hudson Valley that are actually managed to protect grassland birds. In Columbia County, I'd recommend going to the Ooms Conservation Area at Sutherland pond in Chatham. And maybe Overmountain Conservation area in the Ancramdale. They're both owned by Columbia Land Conservancy and managed for grassland birds. And you should see bobolinks there. In Greene County, you might try the Kurosaki Creek grasslands in West Coxsackie. But if you're willing to travel just a little farther, I think the Shwangunks Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Wallkill in Ulster County is the best place to see grassland birds in the whole Hudson Valley. It has an 800 acre grassland that the Fish and Wildlife Service manages for grassland birds. They burn it and mow it in sections. The diversity includes it's very high it includes bobolinks, Savannah sparrows, but also some of the barrow grassland birds like eastern meadowlark, upland sandpiper, grasshopper sparrows, and then some years they've even had Hansel sparrows and dickcissel.

Jean: Do I need to set my alarm to get up really early to see them? Or can I see them, can I just roll out of bed and go see them?

Kathryn: You can see them pretty much anytime. But these are open habitats. They're grassy, so there's no shade. It's hot, and buggy. So if you really want to have a pleasant human experience, it's good to go early in the morning.

Jean: And if our listeners want to do something about conserving these beautiful birds, what can they do?

Kathryn: If you own a grassland? You can use some of the suggestions that I mentioned earlier. But if you do not own a grassland, I would just suggest supporting the private conservation organizations that are doing good things for grassland birds.

Tim: Okay, great Kathryn. As always, we really appreciate your sharing all of your knowledge and insights on grassland birds with us. We want to thank you for joining us today. We're really looking forward to talking to you about lots of other topics on birds in the future. But for now, I think that's all the time we have and thanks again for joining us you bet and thanks to our listeners as well.

You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.

Stay tuned for It's All Greek to Me.

Jean: Hi, today we continue taking a look at some of our most common perennial garden plants. Last time we talked about coneflowers, peonies, day lilies and hostas. The choices for today are the phlox and the rudbeckia or black eyed Susans. Originally, I only meant to discuss the tall garden phlox, phlox paniculata. Like the cone flowers, phlox are North American natives with one lonely exception, a species that comes from Siberia. The genus name phlox means flame in Greek, referring to some of the flowers that are very vivid in color. The paniculata refers to the clusters of flowers that adorn the stems. These are loosely branched flower heads, often many to a stem. There are many colors available in garden phlox, and since they're from native plants, they will often escape into nature. I've been chasing mine around the yard for years, it seems they develop stealth colonies, but they're always beautiful, so I don't mind.

Jean: For some reason I forgot there are several other phlox we grow in our garden, creeping phlox or phlox Selita, meaning all are needle shaped. Referring to the shape of the leaves is a ground cover type plant that makes matte color in the spring. It's also called moss phlox because of the mass of the flowers. A third phlox we often see in the gardens is the woodland phlox, phlox divaricata. This little beauty likes shade and blooms briefly in the spring. The name woodland is very apt, it wants a shady spot tucked in with other spring flowers and will expand over time to make a clump of usually bluish flowers peeking out from the shade. The species name describes the spreading out pattern of growth as opposed to the clump formation of the creeping phlox.

Jean: And last but not least, is the Rudbeckia Fogata. They're also called Black Eyed Susans or Gloriosa Daisy. Another prairie native the genus Rudbeckia has several species that we use in our gardens. The name Rudbeckia was given to the genus by Linnaeus to honor Olaf Rudbek, a Swedish botanist. The full get a description means shining. We also grow Rudbeckia hirta which is less reliably a perennial, the Herta refers to its hairy stem. If you notice that they're both sometimes called flowering and that they look a lot of like the rudbeckia and the echinaceas are actually very closely related in the Asteraceae family. We're not going to get into families at this point. Next time, let's look at some acronyms. Talk to you then.

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That concludes another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. We'd like to thank Sandra Linnell and Deven Connolly from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties for production support. And a special thank you to our listeners for joining us on this episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. You can find links to any of the topics mentioned in this episode at our website at Comments and suggestions for future topics may be directed to us at or on the CCE Master Gardener Volunteers of Columbia and Greene County's Facebook page. For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene counties, visit our website at CCE Columbia or visit us in Hudson or in Acra. Cornell Cooperative Extension provides equal programming and employment opportunities.

Last updated August 12, 2022