Working lands support the Oregon Vesper Sparrow.
When people go hiking at Bald Hill Farm near Corvallis Oregon they immediately notice the Western Bluebirds, perched on fence lines and diligently attending their nest boxes. These colorful little birds are easy to spot, easy to love, and are a great conservation success story. Let’s compare that to the elusive Oregon Vesper Sparrow. To the untrained eye this bird looks like ten other species of sparrows, perfectly camouflaged to blend in with rocks and brown grass. It’s your quintessential “little brown bird,” but also one of the most imperiled species in the Pacific Northwest. How do we go about saving a nondescript little sparrow from a spiraling decline? Scientists with American Bird Conservancy are trying to find out. They have been working for several years on Bald Hill Farm, a conservation property purchased by Greenbelt Land Trust in 2013.
A portion of Bald Hill Farm is an active livestock operation. Maintaining a balance between working lands and restored prairie was central to Greenbelt’s acquisition and is vital for Oregon Vesper Sparrows. The sparrows nest on the ground. If the grass is too short, predators can easily find hatchlings, and if the grass is overgrown, they have difficulty foraging. Cows provide a solution: moved regularly between grazed and ungrazed fields, cattle can keep the grass height just right. Greenbelt has been working closely with a local rancher to use cattle grazing in a way that benefits Vesper Sparrows, but still allows someone to make a living from the land. People who hike the trails can glimpse the farm in action and possibly see the Oregon Vesper Sparrow amidst those more colorful species.
A collaborative approach is key to success.
We know a lot about their habitat preferences, but we still don’t fully understand why this species is spiraling downward. Partners in the Willamette Valley, the Rogue Basin in Oregon, and the South Puget Sound of Washington are working together to find out more. Funding from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Oregon Wildlife Foundation is allowing scientists to determine the specific factors responsible for the sparrow’s decline. Land managers can then target conservation efforts not only towards creating and managing habitat, but also managing target populations to improve nest success. We need to know: Are predators stealing chicks from the nest? Are adults returning from their wintering grounds? Is there sufficient nesting habitat available? Partners working in concert to answer these questions will help narrow down the limiting factors for Oregon Vesper Sparrows across the region.
To help the birds, bring in the people.
If we want to save this sparrow and other little brown birds, it will ultimately take people to decide that little brown birds are worthy of protection. As Baba Dioum said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” In this spirit, Greenbelt is launching a Citizen Science initiative to connect people with nature and wildlife. Greenbelt is training naturalists to work side-by-side with staff scientists to expand the work on Oregon Vesper Sparrow and other species of concern by helpping relocate color banded birds and monitor restored savanna habitat on Greenbelt properties. It’s an exciting opportunity for community members to contribute to conservation and it enables scientists to scale-up from site specific studies to a regional effort. If you would like to get involved with monitoring Oregon vesper sparrows, please contact Matt Blakeley-Smith by email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oregon Vesper Sparrows didn’t have a large fan club in 2017, but momentum is building and this project demonstrates that species recovery is possible when you couple land protection, science, and community involvement. Come join the Club!
Funding for the purchase of Bald Hill Farm came from Bonneville Power Administration, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, hundreds of community member donations, and a bargain sale from Andrew Martin.