More than 50 species of birds depend upon grasslands in Virginia
Many of them are in decline

a white bird with brown speckled wings perches on a dead stump
Savannah sparrows have become rare breeders south of Pennsylvania, though they have been documented breeding on several farms in the Piedmont region that practice grassland bird-friendly management regimes. Photo by October Greenfield
a white, gray and black bird eats a large bug from its talons
Nicknamed the ‘butcher bird,’ Loggerhead shrikes are now rare in Virginia, with only a few known breeding pairs. Loggerhead shrikes prefer open habitat with scattered shrubs. Photo by Amy Johnson.
a small brown bird perches on a green leafy tree branch
Grasshopper sparrow populations have declined by over 70% due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. However, Grasshopper sparrows are responsive to land management regimes including prescribed burning, delaying mowing, and light grazing. Photo by Bernadette Rigley
a black bird with red wings perches on a stalk
Despite being one of North America’s most abundant birds, Red-winged blackbirds are experiencing steep decline due to habitat loss and climate change. Breeding Bird Survey data indicates that Red-winged blackbird populations have declined by over 30% across their range. Photo by October Greenfield
close up of a brown owl with yellow eyes surrounded by tree trunk and branches
Found in the Virginia Piedmont during the winter months, Short-eared owls gather in large, open areas such as pastures and fallow fields. Short-eared owl populations have declined as their suitable breeding and wintering habitat has been lost. Photo by Hugh Kenny
a black bird with a yellow head sits in a green field
Bobolinks have declined by more than 60% since 1970. The biggest threat to Bobolinks is hay harvests during the breeding season. Photo by October Greenfield
Photo by October Greenfield
American kestrel populations have declined by 50% in North America, based on data from migration counts, the USGS Breeding Bird Surveys, and nest box monitoring programs. Photo by October Greenfield
a small bird sits on a wooden fence in a field
Eastern meadowlarks have declined by 70% since 1970 across their range in the US and rely on private lands for 97% of their remaining habitat. Photo by October Greenfield


The plight of grass- and shrubland birds is one that requires an immediate, comprehensive response if we are to reverse the alarming declines being seen across this guild of birds. Birds that depend on grass- and shrubland vegetation for survival have experienced a steeper, more consistent decline than any other group in North America. 

Long-term studies have shown declines in 32 of 37 North American grassland-associated species over the past 50 years. Here in Virginia, our region’s priority conservation species, the Northern Bobwhite, has declined by more than 80%, while three out of four of our iconic Eastern Meadowlarks have disappeared. The data are clear: it’s becoming eerily quiet out there, and the ecosystem services that can be lost due to the absence of these birds are imperative for habitats and agriculture to function, and are all but impossible to replicate. 

Now with more than 80% of our country’s native grassland ecosystems gone, habitat loss is front and center as a major driver of grassland bird decline. Most of what remains is surrogate habitat in the form of agricultural lands, whose value as habitat for birds has diminished alongside the modernization of equipment and broad-scale application of biocides. For conservation to be effective, we need to focus on working alongside landowners and producers to foster management practices that build back the habitats and resources that these birds—and biodiversity as a whole—need to thrive. Working landscapes provide the platform for big changes in favor of conservation.