Audubon’s State of the Grasslands Report a Turning Point for Grassland Bird Conservation in Illinois

By Daniel Suarez and Stephanie Beilke

November 1, 2018 - Get in a car and drive away from the city limits of Chicago. Within 30 minutes, you might just find yourself in a grassland bird’s paradise. Bartel Grassland Land and Water Reserve in Tinley Park is just one of many Chicago area forest preserves where you can go to hear the bubbly melody of the Bobolink or the insect-like buzz of the Grasshopper Sparrow.

Grassland specialist birds, such as Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark and Sedge Wren, used to be abundant throughout Illinois when prairies were vast and undisturbed. However, in the last 200 years, many of Illinois’s prairies have been turned into farms, losing the grasses, sedges, and wildflowers that made them ideal habitat. This massive shift spelled doom for many grassland birds that depend on large open fields of native grasses mixed with flowering herbaceous plants or “forbs.” And today’s data confirms that grassland birds are facing steep declines throughout their breeding ranges in North America.

Our State of the Grasslands report marks a turning point for grassland bird conservation in the Chicago Metropolitan region. For the first time, we have successfully quantified the acreage of grassland habitat and collected data regarding land management practices in Cook, Lake, McHenry, Kane, DuPage, and Will counties. We also included data on population trends and vegetation height preferences for Bobolink, Henslow’s Sparrow, and other imperiled grassland birds, as well as the economic value of grassland restoration in the form of “ecosystem services” for people in the community. We now have a foundation upon which to build a better understanding of how specific management actions, such as haying and prescribed fire, affect specific species of birds on a landscape-scale, and can begin to collaborate with land managers and volunteer stewards on grassland bird conservation.

Although more work is needed in order to learn and share what management strategies most benefit which birds and where, the State of the Grasslands report takes much needed steps to move regionally coordinated grassland bird conservation forward. Most importantly, the report recognizes the value that even relatively small patches of restored grasslands can provide. At first glance, the Chicago area might not seem like it would be an oasis for grassland birds but coordinated management and volunteer support are making a big difference both for birds, and through the ecological benefits of restoration, for people too.

Read Audubon's State of the Grasslands Report here:                          

Learn more about Audubon Great Lakes' work to preserve our Grasslands:

This report is a collaboration between Audubon, Illinois Audubon Society, and the Chicago Wilderness Grassland Bird Task Force. Trends and habitat data were supplied by the tremendous research of Jim Herkert, president of the Illinois Audubon Society, reports from Audubon’s National Science Team, and the hard work of dedicated volunteers from the Bird Conservation Network. Finally, special thanks to our supporters whose generosity makes this important work possible—the Bobolink Foundation, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Grand Victoria Foundation, and Lake County Forest Preserves.

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