Background: As with many species of birds that nest in North American grasslands, Grasshopper Sparrow numbers are declining—the population in Ontario decreased by about 79% between 1970 and 2021. Although the governments of Canada and Ontario list the Grasshopper Sparrow (Eastern subspecies) as Special Concern, there are many knowledge gaps and few conservation efforts focused on the species. In 2022, we began a Grasshopper Sparrow research project based in Grey County to learn more about this under-studied species and engage the agricultural community in stewardship.
Project work 2022: To increase knowledge about the distribution, abundance, and habitat associations of Grasshopper Sparrows and to locate study sites for field research, we surveyed 495 acres of hayfield, pasture, and fallow grassland on 10 farms in Grey County and the surrounding area in late spring. We visited each farm twice to conduct transect surveys, recording all grassland bird species at risk detected.
To learn more about Grasshopper Sparrow nesting ecology, the impacts of farm management, and the effectiveness of stewardship actions, we conducted intensive field research on 8 farms in Grey County. On 7 of the 8 farms, conservation actions were implemented to support Grasshopper Sparrow nest success (e.g., delayed haying, avoidance of nesting areas). We monitored 31 Grasshopper Sparrow territories to determine if males were paired, the timing of nesting, if pairs nested successfully, if they raised multiple broods, and the impact of farm management and conservation actions. We used behavioural observations and nest monitoring to assess breeding status, visiting each Grasshopper Sparrow territory about twice per week for the duration of the nesting season. Overall, we monitored 40 Grasshopper Sparrow nesting attempts across 228 acres of habitat.
We also collected vegetation data, including vegetation height, density, composition, and dominant species in fields occupied by nesting Grasshopper Sparrows on 5 of the 8 farms.
Project work 2023: In spring 2023, we continued to focus on the Grasshopper Sparrow and expanded the scope of the project to include Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. In late May and early June, we surveyed 550 acres of grassland habitat across 13 farms in Grey and Wellington Counties to estimate the distribution and abundance of grassland birds at risk on each farm. For the remainder of the field season, we monitored nesting Grasshopper Sparrows, Bobolinks, and Eastern Meadowlarks in target fields on 9 farms (1 of which was also a study site in 2022). On 8 of the 9 farms, farmers were able to implement conservation actions to reduce negative impacts of agricultural activities on nesting grassland birds, increasing the chances of successful nesting. Overall, we monitored 79 grassland bird territories and 114 nesting attempts across 288 acres of agricultural grassland. We also collected vegetation data at all 28 monitored Grasshopper Sparrow nests.
Conservation implications: On each of the 16 farms where we conducted intensive grassland bird monitoring (1 farm was monitored in both years), we provided farmers with information on territory and nest locations, nesting status, and guidance regarding conservation actions they could implement to increase nest success over the course of the nesting season. Conservation actions implemented on farms included delayed haying and grazing, excluding livestock from or mowing around areas with active nests, and modifying grazing rotations to minimize disturbance to nesting birds. In the fall, we disseminated individualized reports to farmers that summarized the impact of stewardship actions and included site-specific recommendations to provide long-term conservation benefits to Grasshopper Sparrows, Bobolinks, and Eastern Meadowlarks. The information shared during the field season and in individualized reports provides farmers with practical guidance that can be used to make future management decisions for target areas to minimize impacts on Grasshopper Sparrows (and other grassland birds), thereby increasing opportunities for these birds to successfully raise young.
Project dates: 2022 – 2023
Funding: Support for this project was provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, The McLean Foundation, Hodgson Family Foundation, K.M. Hunter Charitable Foundation, S. M. Blair Family Foundation, Jackman Foundation, Colleges and Institutes Canada, ECO Canada, Canada Summer Jobs, and individual donors.
This project was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada.
Ce projet a été réalisé avec l’appui financier du gouvernement du Canada.
This project has received funding support from the Government of Ontario. Such support does not indicate endorsement by the Government of Ontario of the contents of this material.
We used behavioural observations to assess the breeding status of Grasshopper Sparrows and the impact of agricultural activities on nesting across 8 farms in Grey County in 2022.
Photo: Misha McCaughan
Rotational grazing in this pasture provided Grasshopper Sparrows opportunities to nest successfully in 2022. Two sections of pasture were left ungrazed until late in the nesting season (mid-July). Two other sections were grazed in late May and early June, then not again for about 8 weeks, providing a long enough rest period for birds to raise young between grazing occasions.
Photo: Zoé Lebrun-Southcott
Grasshopper Sparrow nests are built directly on the ground, hidden by vegetation, and often have a partial roof. Females alone incubate the eggs.
Photo: Zoé Lebrun-Southcott
In 2023, we also monitored Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks.
This male Bobolink had just taken flight from the stick placed 2 metres from his nest to mark its location for monitoring. The hay harvest was delayed in this field to protect many Bobolink nests.
Photo: Xuan Zhang