January 28, 2020

Keeper of the Bobolinks

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Every summer bobolinks colonize our fields.  The males, black and white with brilliant yellow highlights, perch on grass stalks.  They bob about in the wind guarding their territories.  Periodically they make ritualized, vertical flights some 50 feet into the air before gliding to another grass stalk, wings stiff and curved slightly downward.  They sing loud and long while they do it.

I love hearing and watching them.

I try to delay haying until their broods have fledged.  That’s not always easy.  Let’s face it, sometimes that’s impossible.  The old adage “make hay while the sun shines” applies to everyone.  Me, too.  When the grass is ripe and the weather cooperates, I have to hay.

Other animals depend on me as well.  Still, I keep a careful eye out for nests as I mow.  They’re not easy to spot.  The chicks are half the size of the adults.  Worse, their first feathers are drab, mottled brown.

They resemble miniature sparrows, even under close scrutiny.

It’s their fathers who give their locations away, guarding their sections of field.  They perch longer and longer over their nests before flying as the tractor circles ever closer.  Their courage is impressive.  But finally the diesel motor roars too close, black smoke sweats skyward and self-preservation wins.  They fly.

I throttle back, disengage the mower and climb down to look.  You have to be careful.  It’s easy to step on the nest for which you’re searching.  That doesn’t help anybody.

I used to leave islands of unmowed grass around each one.  Unfortunately that doesn’t work.  Coyotes, even our dogs, then see those isolated hay stands as billboards and beeline to each.  Their investigations are fatal to the chicks.

One year I watched a northern harrier hover over such an advertised location before dropping to the ground and dining take-out on the entire brood.  Being the creator of the world’s first fly-thru window gave me no comfort.

Worse, that’s not including the biggest villains.  Crows.  They’re a threat to any newborn.  They goose-step around behind the tractor looking for anything unlucky enough to survive the mower.

Today I carefully relocate bobolink chicks to other, as yet unmowed, fields.  Usually they’re very close to flight when I do it.
Still, I don’t know that this is a successful strategy either.  I see lots of fledglings flitting about.  The bobolinks come back every year.

But are they the ones that I’ve relocated?  Who can say?

I climb back on the tractor after moving another brood.  Then I bump-up the throttle, re-engage the power-take-off and think about all this.

It’s certain that I share this farm with hosts of other animals.  It’s equally true that my activities affect not just individuals, but entire species.  I create and maintain the conditions some need to breed and survive.  If I let these fields grow up into woodland, that would drive out the bobolinks far more completely than mowing.

How strange to realize that I’m crucial to a process of creating and maintaining habitat while, at the same time, my activities are lethal to a number of individuals.  Sure, it’s not intentional but it happens just the same.  Where’s the balance?

Am I successful in lessening my impact on bobolinks?  I hope so.  But can I be sure?

What plan would provide an answer?

Thinking about that only brings up other questions.

How effective am I as a steward?  I try very hard but is that sufficient?  A bit of knowledge goes a long way.  I’m afraid that I’m deficit in too many areas.

For years I mowed around bobolink nests in order to save the chicks.  That only called them to the attention of predators.  It’s curious, isn’t it, how striving and achieving are so different?  We work so hard to move in one direction sometimes completely unaware that our efforts are having the opposite effect.

I rub the stubble on my chin and wonder.  Beyond bobolinks, more than just farming, isn’t this the most human of all dilemmas?