The Vanishing Bird Habitat

I never moved very far from where I was born and raised. For my first twenty years I lived in Farmdale, Ohio. Farmdale is a rural farming area with mostly dairy farmers, full or part time, as some farmers worked other places to make ends meet. As a kid in the 50’s, we pretty much kept busy and entertained ourselves outside. Television was in its infancy and most families in the country didn’t have it yet. There was no such thing as cell phones or video games, and desktop computers were another 25 years away from even the simplest ones. In the summer we rode our bikes all over on the roads and walked through the fields, pastures, and woods. Crossing through private property was not a problem since most of the owners knew us and would often stop to talk. We were able to enjoy the outdoors and all of Mother Nature’s world (mammals, birds, reptiles, plants, insects, and features of the land).

The modern term I use for fence rows is “strip habitat” because it includes more areas than just borders between fields and pastures. It includes the area between the road and the field, the riparian area next to the streams and all the perimeter area around the fields. In case you wondered what fence rows were, they were separations or divisions between farm fields. Fences were used to keep livestock confined or to just divide the fields for different crops, but they were all called fence rows. Many of these fence rows had grown up to weeds, brush, or even small trees. Farming equipment was much smaller, and farming was very different from today. It was mostly dairy cows or livestock of some type which had to be contained.

Fence rows had some additional benefits such as providing cover for wildlife and birds. Rabbits, squirrels, and ground hogs found homes in the fence rows. Rodents like mice, rats and moles made burrowing nest in these areas. They in turn were food for the larger wildlife. Many varieties of wildflowers grew up in the fence rows, which provided food for bees and birds. Fence rows also provided excellent habitat for nest building.

In my early twenties, mid 60’s on the calendar, I moved to Gustavus, Ohio, about five miles from where I spent my early years. At that time Gustavus was mostly dairy farming, but on a larger scale because it was a more rural township and had a much lower population than the neighboring township of Kinsman. Over the next fifty to sixty years Gustavus, along with a lot of northeast Ohio, changed from dairy farming to grain farming.

As grain farming replaced dairy farming there was a big change in land use; the fence rows were taken down and the pastures were turned into crop land. Many of the wood lots were cut down and converted to crop land. The evolution of dairy farmland to crop land is no different than the increased use of land for homes, stores, and manufacturing.

One of the things I had never even thought about until some 30 to 40 years after moving to Gustavus was what I later called “strip habitat.” I define strip habitat as all the narrow plots of vegetation that grow almost anywhere that is not cultivated or manicured (mown lawn). This strip habitat was very crucial to mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects to provide shelter, food, and a place to raise their family. It was everywhere and was the greatest place to explore without destroying crops or bothering the farm animals in the pasture. It also kept me off the road, except for the time to bicycle or walk to another destination.

With the change of land use and the vast improvement in agricultural equipment it is much easier to keep things neat. The farmers wanted to eliminate the strip habitat since it is where the small animals live and can get to the crops for food. The fences around the pastures were taken down since they didn’t have livestock to hold. The 6- or 8-foot vegetative strips around the crop fields were eliminated. Along with improved agriculture equipment is the new and improved lawn care equipment that most homeowners and farmers have. With this equipment they can trim much closer to the crops and mow directly to the edge of the field to their yard or ditch line. This eliminated the strip habitat and gave it a more manicured look. Either way it eliminated the natural areas for all god’s creatures that called it home or was a source for food supply.

Along with new and improved farming equipment, came new and improved equipment for mowing roadside and park areas.   Road ditches in the old days that were mown straight across with a 7-foot sickle bar mower are now profile mowed to the contour of the ditch and 15 to 25 feet back.

Riparian areas are another form of strip habitat that are beneficial but are often removed of vegetation to eliminate the habitat use.  There should be a natural buffer of trees, shrubs, and other vegetation along waterways, not only for habitat, but for erosion control and keep field runoff out of the streams.

With all this loss of strip habitat, I feel it has a very negative effect on the bird populations of the past, such as:  bobwhites, pheasants, grouse, meadow larks.  I remember sitting on my back patio and hearing the very distinct calls of these birds and maybe a faint sound of a ruffed grouse in the distance. Now when you look around the area, all the fence rows are gone.  I thought to myself “Where have all the fence rows gone, from a long time ago”?  It brings to mind a song performed by Peter, Paul and Mary from a long time ago:

Where have all the fence rows gone, long time passing?
Modern times have taken then from everywhere.
Modern equipment has helped them go.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

from “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” written by Pete Seeger

They have gone the way of the many small dairy farms we once had and have been replaced with large grain farms.  Strip habitats were removed, and the fields were combined to make larger fields.  Larger fields make it more economical to use larger equipment and increase the crop output.

The size and the way that fields are farmed has been a slow, but constant change over the years, leading to the vanishing bird habitat.

Loyd Marshall

The Vanishing Bird Habitat