This winter has been one of the warmest on record in Massachusetts, and around the nation, extreme weather events are in the headlines on a regular basis. Scientists agree that our rapidly warming planet is now feeling the effects of the climate crisis.
However, climate change is not the only crisis our planet faces. For decades, scientists and conservation groups have also been raising the alarm about the “biodiversity crisis,” in which wildlife populations are plummeting. Fortunately, one solution to addressing these challenges may lie in a surprising place: the farmlands that help define the landscape of the Connecticut River Valley.
The Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Federation studies trends in global biodiversity, and in 2022, it revealed an average decline of 69% in overall species populations since 1970. Researchers have also recently found that we have lost 25% of all North American birds in the last 50 years: for every four individual birds that were supported by the continent in 1970, there are now only three.
Though exacerbated by the rapidly changing climate, the global biodiversity crisis is primarily the result of human development and destruction of wildlife habitat through resource extraction. Traditional efforts to conserve biodiversity tend to focus on well-known species that we believe to be in decline.
National and state governments list these species as being endangered, threatened or vulnerable, or similar terms. Those designations trigger various levels of protection to reduce harmful human impacts and to encourage actions to help species populations to recover. This system can work well, but it may not be enough.
To conserve the entire web of life, we also need to focus on species that are common now, to reduce the chances they’ll need to be listed as “threatened or endangered” in the future. This more holistic approach of keeping common species common requires protecting entire habitats, which can benefit whole suites of species.
In the Valley, we often think of forests and wetlands as the places that provide habitat for wildlife. However, considerable biodiversity can also be supported by the abundant farmlands that make up a significant portion of our landscape.
Land conservation professionals in Massachusetts are fortunate to have a planning tool called BioMap. This statewide computer mapping system provides information that helps identify particular habitat types that are most important for conserving biodiversity. The detailed analysis often highlights forests as the priority, but areas of farmland also may show high value for various types of wildlife.
Along the Connecticut River, rich soils have made farmland the dominant habitat type, often including smaller areas of floodplain forests and wetlands adjacent to farms. In the hilltowns, forests are the dominant land type, with patches of farmland interspersed within that forested ecosystem.
Farmland protection efforts focus on conserving active farmland for growing food and other agricultural products. However, protecting these farms can also conserve adjacent habitat types on the same parcel of land. For many species, the value of farmland lies in the “edge habitat” it creates, where two or more habitat types abut one another.
The combination of habitats in proximity to farmland may create just the right conditions for certain species, such as white-tailed deer or the threatened Eastern spadefoot, an amphibian similar to a toad. The American kestrel, a small falcon, uses a variety of farmland habitats to hunt for invertebrates and small mammals.
Other species require large areas of open land that can be found on farms. Grassland birds, many of which are in significant decline, are regularly found in these wide-open farm fields. Vesper sparrows, listed as threatened in Massachusetts, often nest in farmland: Among their most preferred habitats are local potato fields.
Meanwhile, bobolinks and Savannah sparrows prefer local meadows and hayfields. Managing hayfields to allow these species to nest successfully is challenging for farmers, but for those who wish to try, incentive programs are available to encourage cutting hay at times of the year that will increase the grassland birds’ nesting success.
Local farmland often supports a variety of bird species like snow buntings, which breed in the northern tundra during summer but migrate south and forage for food in resting winter farm fields. Even the majestic snowy owl can sometimes be spotted hunting in local fields.
The presence of human-made structures like old barns can make farms desirable for some bat and bird species. These aerial insectivores — animals that fly and catch insects for food — need a structure to roost in or to build their nests. Barn swallows are one still locally common aerial insectivore that’s part of a group of birds in great decline in North America.
Local farmland also makes a big contribution to more abundant migratory and resident birds. Red-winged blackbirds and dark-eyed juncos, though “common,” are not immune to the challenges causing the biodiversity crisis, and they benefit from the habitat provided by local farms. So do flocks of American robins, American crows, and Canada geese that forage in farmland, which helps keep these familiar species common in our landscape.
While farmland provides great value to human communities, it also provides a surprising resource to support local biodiversity. By protecting farmland as well as wildlands and woodlands in our region, we can help some of these common and not-so-common species survive in challenging times.
Great article! As a farmer interested in wildlife, the sighting of these critters is one of the rewards of the job! On a practical level, it is often a question of disturbance — the timing and extent — whether it is mowing, plowing, or other necessary farm activities. Leaving reservoirs of undisturbed habitat, even only on a timescale of a few weeks, seems to help wildlife hang on.