I’ve always been interested in natural resource conservation and have reported on the topic for more than 40 years. And I’ve been working to improve the conservation practices on our Nebraska farm for about as long. Yet, gaining a deep interest in birds and bird watching came relatively late in life, and really took off when I met Bill Flack, a long-time birder from nearby Kearney, Nebraska. (Bill was featured as a “superforecaster” in a Successful Farrming article I wrote about prediction in agriculture.)
I could write a book about Flack and his many interesting observations about birds, but in the last few years, he’s written his own story about all the birds — now 100 species — that he’s documented on our farm in Buffalo County, Nebraska.
Flack’s documentation of the 100 species, and thousands of individuals, from our farm, and his many email observations, have changed my view of the place. There was a time when the only birds I might notice would be the obvious ones — like a pheasant, hawk, or crow. Now, because of Flack’s birding, I’ve learned that the farm is home to the likes of a lot of other birds you don’t always notice, such as small grassland birds: sedge wrens, savannah sparrows, American goldfinches.
Overhead, an alert eye might now spot a sharp-shinned hawk or a great blue heron. Flack’s bird lists for the farm include a bunch of birds I’d never heard of, but which are now rather common on the place – the Bell’s vireo, yellow warbler, and dickcissel. And there have been a couple real surprises — the magnolia warbler and long-billed curlew, which showed up rather out of their usual range.
Flack keeps a strict routine on his birding visits, noting the start time, time elapsed, weather conditions, his precise route, the birds’ activities in some cases, and the exact numbers of species and individuals. With long practice he’s learned to identify birds by subtle features, the shape of the beak, bars on the wings, length of the tail, the calls and songs, and so on.
While birding may not be for everyone, one thing I’ve picked up along the way is that birds are more than something to count or hunt. They are rather a world unto themselves and a reflection of the health of the land. Like the proverbial canary in a coal mine, birds can be a sign of a healthy farm
I’ve come to realize, too, that our farm is home to so many birds and other wildlife, because for several generations my family installed conservation features on the land: trees and native prairie grass on CRP, but also several shelterbelts, farmstead trees, pollinator habitat, and a prairie grass strip on cropland. Our farm operator, Kevin Schroeder, uses conservation tillage and is willing to tend the small fields of row crops and prairie hay. Over the years we’ve had good advice from experts, including USDA conservationists, Pheasants Forever folks, and a couple farmer friends.
Based on my experience, here are a few thoughts on how to become a birder of your farm:
- Pay attention to the rough edges. Places like field borders, rogue fence-line trees, and patches of unmown grass, make great bird habitat. Even abandoned barbed wire fences make perfect perches. “A property with highly diverse habitats will likely host more species than one that is uniform,” says Joel Jorgensen, Nebraska Game and Parks nongame bird manager.
- Plant a patch of native grass. Prairie bird species are in decline, and you can give them a big boost. Relatively small areas of prairie grass strips have proved to provide “disproportional benefits” for soil and water conservation, as well as an estimated twofold increase in bird species and abundance, according to Iowa research on field prairie strips.
- Try some no-till. “No-till is definitely a big plus for birds. Several species that historically nested on the prairie will now nest in corn and soybean stubble that has not been disturbed,” says Nebraska farmer-birder Don Paseka.
- Get some birding gear. You can watch birds without any equipment, but a pair of binoculars will reveal surprising, vivid details; 7× or 8× binoculars are recommended for birding and can be handy for general farm use.
- Start a list. Keep a notebook and pen handy. Set a goal and see if you can identify, say, a dozen birds on your place over the next year. Even if I haven’t known the names of all the birds I’ve spotted, I’ve come to appreciate their individual traits and behavior.
- Buy a bird field guide. Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson is portable, rugged, and well illustrated, but there are many others. Smartphone birding apps, like Merlin, can help with identification and other info.
- Listen up. You might even start listening for birds and learning their calls and songs, which can be learned from books and apps.
- Watch the sky. During planting and harvest seasons, watch for the spring and fall migrations. This is when you’ll see the most variety of birds on your farm.
- Share your findings. Sign up your farm on eBird (ebird.org) and contribute your findings to a global database. All you have to do is list the birds you’ve seen during a given period. “Some of the most valuable historical information about bird occurrence in Nebraska are from folks who just kept detailed lists of their own farm, ranch, or yard,” says Joel Jorgensen.
Our farm list of 100 bird species, in reverse order of discovery
Great crested flycatcher
American tree sparrow
Great Blue heron
Great horned owl