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Get a bird’s-eye view of your farm

For Nebraska farmers Don and Janis Paseka, birding and farming go hand in hand.

Don and Janis Paseka describe their eastern Nebraska farm as a typical dryland grain farm for their area. The operation includes a corn-soybean rotation, pasture, and CRP. What’s not so typical is their intense involvement in bird watching, or “birding,” as they prefer to call it.

Their land conservation practices reflect their interest in providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. After years of no-till corn and reduced tillage for beans following corn, they switched to narrow-row, no-till beans in 2004 and have been 100% no-till ever since. 

The CRP land, 50 acres, is spread over 11 tracts to pinpoint land either too wet or highly erodible to farm. The no-till and idled acres have paid off big time in bird terms, as the Pasekas have been able to list more than 200 species on the farm.

In a recent interview with Successful Farming, the Pasekas discussed their interest in birding and how it might actually interest other farmers. 

What’s your history with bird watching? How did you get interested in it?

Janis: For starters, we’re birders, not bird watchers! It seems like a trivial detail, but I think what it gets at is our intent and the depth of our interest. We don’t just want to put out a backyard feeder and watch the birds. We want to observe changes in bird behavior. For example, why do we seldom have black-capped chickadees on our farm when they used to be common here? (West Nile virus, in part.)

My mother was a birder, so I got into it early. As a teenager, I didn’t think it was cool to bird, but as a young adult I became interested again. At some point Don got involved, and soon after that we had to purchase a second pair of binoculars so we could both get a better look at what was out there.

What do you think birding tells us about a farm, or any landscape for that matter?

Don: Janis and I both enjoy doing birding citizen science. For more than 20 years we have volunteered to do breeding bird surveys for the Department of the Interior. These surveys are done annually in June during the prime nesting season. A route is established along a 25-mile random stretch of road and starting one-half hour before sunrise. The protocol is to stop every half mile for three minutes and count all the birds that you can see or hear.  

We’ve learned that even in intensively farmed areas, a few species still manage to nest. But once you start adding a little habitat like a few shrubs or trees, a creek or slough, some grass, or even a farmstead, the numbers and diversity increase dramatically. Birds are out there trying to make a living off the land just like we are as farmers, and maybe we should show a little more empathy.

How many species have you counted on your farm? Any favorite sightings? 

Janis: Our farm list now totals 225 species. One of my favorites is the scissor-tailed flycatcher I saw on our lane in May of 2012. It’s a Southern species that can sometimes be found in the southern tiers of Nebraska counties, but seeing it on our farm was a real treat. It’s also a bird Don has never forgiven me for seeing. He was planting beans on a field 5 miles from home. I called him right away, but the bird was gone by the time he got home, so he missed it.

Another outstanding memory is from late September 2018. We happened to glance out the kitchen window and saw a kettle, a swirling group of migrating hawks. We are volunteer hawk watchers at a nature center in western Iowa, so we are used to identifying and counting migrating raptors. This group was composed of broad-winged hawks, but the amazing thing was that it was followed by another group and another after that until it became a stream of hawks that went on for hours. The broad-winged hawks were joined by Swainson’s hawks, and by the time the nearly unbelievable stream of hawks finally passed by or landed in trees to spend the night, we had estimated an astounding total of 14,000 hawks on their way south for the winter. This is more hawks in one afternoon than are counted in an entire fall season at the hawkwatch where we volunteer.

Read more: 100 species on my farm and counting

What practices on your place most benefit the birds? 

Don: No-till is definitely a big plus for birds. Several species that historically nested on the prairie will now nest in corn and soybean stubble that has not been disturbed. Four that come to mind are killdeer, upland sandpiper, horned lark, and vesper sparrow. They seem to tolerate a pass with a sprayer, while even one tillage pass would definitely destroy nests and nestlings.

The CRP program is also great for birds. Not only have the numbers of game birds (wild turkey, bobwhite quail, and ring-necked pheasant) greatly increased, but many songbirds also use this habitat, especially the areas with the springs that you had to normally farm around. Some species that come to mind are song, lark, field, and grasshopper sparrows; dickcissel; and red-winged blackbirds. In addition, hawks like to hunt the small mammals that also live there.

The philosophy of “farm the best and save the rest” is especially relevant with today’s low commodity prices. Why farm those wet spots or keep filling in gullies and losing money when you can get paid a couple hundred bucks per acre annually to take it out of production for 10 years?

Why would you encourage other farmers to watch birds? How should they get started? 

Don: I don’t know of a farmer who doesn’t enjoy being outdoors, and every farmer feels a connection to nature and the seasons. Birds are a part of that.

We tend to notice big birds first. When you hear them calling and you look up to see skeins of snow geese as they fly north in early spring, you may notice that some are much smaller than the others and wonder why. It turns out that they are a separate species called Ross’s goose, which used to be uncommon.

Or you’re combining beans in the fall and you notice a few hawks circling the combine and landing now and then to seemingly watch your progress, but then you notice that they don’t look like the red-tailed hawks we’re used to seeing. Besides not having a red tail, they fly with a slight dihedral of the wings and lack the creamy white belly with a dark belly band of your garden variety red-tail. It turns out that Swainson’s hawks nest in western grasslands and migrate south to spend their winters in Argentina, and, hey, their primary diet is grasshoppers! Interesting!

If your curiosity is piqued, you start to notice smaller birds, especially if they have some color. At this point you need a field guide and a pair of binoculars.

Anything else to add?  

Don: As a farmer you have an advantage over other birders. Every time you leave the house and go about your daily routine you can be birding and frequently see some interesting birds that other people have to hunt for.

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