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Cover Crops and Birds

Will Yandik is a fourth-generation farmer with a passion for studying the connections between winter birds and farmland

Will Yandik holds a Savannah Sparrow.

To Will Yandik, a good morning is when the sun is shining, the winds are light, and birds are in the net. Yandik is a farmer with a passion for researching the connections between grassland birds and agriculture. Specifically, can farms provide a home for winter birds with a mix of warm-season cover crops? How can birds also use unmanaged weedy edges and switchgrass in the Native Meadow Trial at the Farm Hub? 

As part of the study, he captures, bands, and monitors birds to see how frequently they use the Farm Hub as their winter home. The focus is on three species of sparrows: the American Tree (a winter visitor), a Song (a common breeder in the Northeast), and Savannah (a declining grassland species). 

Now in the second year of the study, the research will continue to examine whether the birds remain in the spring and whether they breed. 

Sparrows may supplement their winter diet by eating the seeds of warm-season perennial grasses that can be planted by farmers to increase carbon sequestration in their soils.

Yandik is studying to see if the birds that overwinter in these habitats remain in place to breed. We know from dozens of studies that birds that breed close to their wintering grounds often get a head start on nesting. The warm season mix includes mainly Sorghum sudangrass, Sun Hemp, and Teff.

Farmers typically plant a variety of cover crops in the summer and mow them down in the autumn. As part of the research, the Farm Hub’s production team has left the warm season cover crop mix standing through the winter and mowed in the early spring.

“It often costs the farmer nothing to delay mowing–and can provide a quality temporary winter habitat for sparrows, hawks, and raptors, as well as many rodent-hunting mammals,” he says. 

This year Yandik has added color banding to the mix. The unique color combination of the bands makes the birds easy to spot without having to capture them thus saving time. There are three color bands, one on the bird’s right leg and two on the left leg. As the bird perches or forages on the ground the leg bands become visible in unique color combinations that enable the observer (with binoculars) to identify the individual. 

“Sometimes it’s tricky in large open spaces to get a bird to fly in my little net, so if we can get a color band on it and we are able to respot it, we can identify uniquely that individual without having to put it in your hand.” 

The process of capturing and banding birds is intricate involving setting up the mist nets, fine and feathery nets that are near invisible to the naked eye — a centuries old invention used by hunters in Japan. Yandik swiftly retrieves the captured birds gathering details of vitals including tarsus (leg) length, its weight, and the amount of fat on the bird to assess its health. His hands red and raw he jots down vitals with pencil on notebook (later to be logged into the computer). The banded sparrow is then set free.  

Since 2022, he has banded approximately 200 birds at the Farm Hub. 

Yandik’s own background inspired him to pursue the research. He is a fourth-generation farmer at Green Acres Farm in Columbia County that grows a variety of fruits and vegetables. Yandik has extended the study to his own farm with a plot of Sorghum sudangrass. 

“Sorghum sudangrass is a cheap seed making adoption by area farmers more likely,” says Yandik. “In addition to its potential habitat value for birds, it can increase the organic matter and carbon sequestration of most Hudson Valley soils.”

At the end of February Yandik completes the field work and plans to return in the spring to identify banded birds. 

The ideal weather days are celebrated especially when considering that Yandik has seen his share of colder days, one even hovering near the single digits. Ultimately though he is driven by a desire to find harmony between birds and farms. 

“The ultimate goal of this study is to be able to provide recommendations to real farmers,” said Yandik. “To offer concrete suggestions based on science that has the potential to offer birds a winter home without breaking a farm’s budget.”

Why do we care? “As population centers grow throughout the Hudson Valley and Northeast, we find that farmland is converted to other uses such as housing developments. The farms that remain–often to stay profitable–use the land very intensively with fewer weedy and unmanaged areas that these types of birds need to survive. Paradoxically, organic farms often have the most pressure to destroy weedy areas on their farms and field margins to prevent weed seeds from spreading to crop areas because they do not have permission to use herbicides as a form of weed control. Prevention is the best medicine.”

-Amy Wu

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