The classic place for a bird seems to be in a forest, or at least a tree, right? But there are plenty of birds that rely on open fields for survival. For example, the loggerhead shrike, one of our focal species for recovery. Grasslands are one of the fastest declining habitats in North America, having exceeded the disappearance of forest habitats. One big culprit is changing farming practices including more large-scale row-cropping, which has resulted in less pastureland. The grassland crisis has only been high on the conservation radar since the mid-1990s, when we hit the ground running in an attempt to catch up with species declines. Welcome to the plight of the not-oft-thought-of grassland songbird and our grassland songbird species spotlight series.
Eastern Meadowlark
  • 3 in 4 eastern meadowlarks have been lost since 1970
  • Meadowlarks require around 6 acres of grassland to establish territory, which is hard to find!
  • Males display their bright yellow chest and black band to intimidate each other and to attract females. Males will attract 2-3 females to their territory, each of whom builds their own nest without the male’s help.
  • Eastern meadowlarks look almost identical to western meadowlarks, but sound completely different. Males of these two geographical counterparts often physically fight over territory because they can’t communicate by song—they’re speaking two different languages!
  • Male bobolinks look like they’re wearing a backwards tuxedo
  • Their scientific name is Dolichonyx oryzivorus where “oryzivorous” means rice- or grain-eating
  • They have the longest migration of any North American songbird, spending their winters in the pampas (grasslands) of Brazil and Argentina (yup, the same fancy floofy grass popular for weddings!)
  • Much of their habitat is privately-owned. Landowners can help preserve bobolink populations by not disturbing lands during the breeding season (for example, wait until August to mow fields)
Savannah Sparrow
  • Their common name (Savannah) and species name (sandwichensis) are actually both references to places they were discovered, not to their grassland ecosystem and a delicacy they would never consume
  • They are very susceptible to crop pesticides due to their ground foraging tactic, and may eat granular pesticides
  • They are mainly seed eaters, but will forage insects from wherever they can during the breeding season, including from intertidal zones and even spittle bug nymphs directly from inside the foam!
  • Savannah sparrows are homebodies; they are very likely to return to the exact place they were born and breed there for their entire lives (the scientific term for this is “high natal philopatry”)
Chestnut-collared Longspur
  • The chestnut-collared longspur’s cowboy-esque name comes from their characteristic long hind claw, which sadly is not used for spurring on horses
  • Their short grassland habitat, by definition, requires short grasses. Grazing animals (historically bison, now mostly cattle) are required to keep these grasslands short. Without free-range grazing cattle, the grasses would grow too tall, shading and killing the plants beneath them, causing a cascade of reduced biodiversity in the food web.
  • Since 1966, there has been in 87% decline in their population. If this rate continues, another half of their population will disappear by 2037!
  • The biggest conservation concern for this species is habitat loss or degradation. Much of this is from changing farming practices in grasslands, and oil and gas development on breeding grounds.

Helmi Hess

Research Biologist – Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Helmi joined the WPC loggerhead shrike team in 2023 from a background in wildlife biology, rehabilitation and education. She has worked in grassland and aquatic avian research across Canada since 2015, with species including savannah sparrows, chestnut-collared longspurs and American dippers. Helmi has co-authored peer-reviewed papers in both avian physiology through the University of Guelph and in ecotoxicology through the University of British Columbia.