Landowner Response to Bird Population Surveys


Some landowners are wary of the motivations of technicians gathering bird data on their land. The more accurate data provided by the bird census program can benefit private landowners, who often shudder when there’s talk a bird might be listed as threatened or endangered because of land-use regulations such a listing can bring. Better data on bird populations has resulted in findings of higher populations of particular bird species — sometimes keeping a bird from being listed.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

Sometimes, learning how to conserve bird habitat comes from counting birds and gathering data on bird populations. A new program developed several years ago enhances previous survey methods by collecting information about the habitat where birds are found, as well as collecting information on bird numbers and species. This bird count is conducted in spring and early summer when birds are singing a lot.

“While they’re in the process of making nests and laying eggs, that’s when they are really defending territory vigorously. That’s when they’re out singing and you can detect as many of them as possible.”

That’s biologist Chris White of Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. The survey attempts to gather data from random locations across the land, and that often includes privately-owned property.

“We give each of our technicians a list of survey locations and say, ‘Hey, you have to figure out how to get out here. There’s landowners that we need to contact.’ We secure permission from landowners before we actually go out there.”

To get statistically-valid samples of birds, it’s necessary to collect some data on private land, whether it’s a ranch — or a backyard in the suburbs. At Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, it’s Jenny Bervin’s job to contact landowners. She says the easy conversations are with landowners who’ve permitted access in the past.

“Some of them are very interested in what we’re doing. Some are suspicious; they do want to know our motivations. And then, other landowners think it is totally awesome and they’ll tell us where we can find those birds.”

Private landowners often shudder when there’s talk of listing a critter on the endangered species list. The rules that follow a listing can impede ranching activities. For the landowner who’s suspicious of letting bird counters on the land, scientists say that more accurate population information can keep birds off the endangered species list. Christopher Rustay, Conservation Delivery Leader for Playa Lakes Joint Venture, cites the example of the Long-billed Curlew.

“Once we started surveying for Long-billed Curlew — we thought the population was less than 20,000 birds — and we discovered there was more likely to be 120,000 birds. So, not a species that should be considered for listing.”

Playa Lakes Joint Venture is helping extend this program of data-gathering across the six prairie-grass states in its service area. There’s good reason — of all bird species in the U.S., the biggest population declines have been among species of grassland birds — those that populate our neck of the woods. Mike Carter is the Joint Venture coordinator.

“We already have the monitoring data telling us that there’s been big declines. The importance of this program is that it tells us what habitat should look like to reverse those declines — what kind of habitat should we be making to reverse those declines.”

Diane VanLandingham is a landowner south of LaJunta. She was eager to have bird surveyors gather data on her ranchland. The bird counters found lots of birds!

[Bird song]

“Mourning Doves, Mockingbirds, Barn Swallows, Hawks, Quail, Barn Owls, Great Horned Owls, Loggerhead Shrikes, Meadowlarks, Lark Buntings… of course, I saw the Roadrunner a few weeks ago. King birds were chasing the Roadrunner down the driveway the last time I saw him.”

Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures. Our thanks to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library in Ithaca New York for featured bird songs.

Original broadcast: September 2015

Posted: July 10, 2016
Topics: Grassland Birds