BEST OF 2011: Biologist counting birds to measure farm health

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December 26, 2011 - 6:00pm

Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of the NET News QUEST Nebraska project, a multimedia series exploring Nebraska science, environment and nature.

12/7/11: Click here for a new blog entry from researcher John Quinn

This story is also part of our "Best of 2011" series of reports, airing Dec. 26 to Dec. 30, 2011, on NET Radio, looking back at some of the top Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired June 23.

On a bright spring morning in eastern Butler County, John Quinn and the college students working with him for the summer are walking farm ground counting birds.

"We use two ways of finding nests," he said. "We do a lot of systematic searching, just up and down the fence rows; we have a pretty narrow habitat, they're not going to be out in the fields. We also use adult behavior so if we see them flying in with sticks, we hear really loud calls, vocalizations as we get close, you know, hissing or clucking, we know that there's a good chance that there's a nest in that area. Sometimes it's a hit-or-miss - you can walk by a nest three times and not pick it up, but you happen to look in the right spot, you get lucky.

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Perry Stoner, NET News

Bird biologist John Quinn explores a farm in Hamilton County, collecting bird songs as a way to study the health of farms.


 

Click here to listen to the bird songs Quinn has collected so far.

"A lot of them we find about knee-high to head-high, a big clump of branches like this," Quinn continued. "It is kind of interesting - it is stuck in-between two trees rather than resting on a branch. But they're pretty adaptable on where they build nests. It's an incredible process how they start with that base layer, and then will build it on up."

Quinn is a bird biologist doing post-doctoral research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He's counting birds in several rural Nebraska areas, measuring how many birds and how many species of birds are in a given location. By returning to the same fields every three or four days, Quinn can measure which nest locations are successful. That helps him determine the health of the ecosystem in which the birds live, too. Quinn called this biodiversity.

"It's the variety of life that we find on earth," he said. "Everything from genetic variation within a species, the variety of birds you might see in an area, or the different ecosystems that you find in a region, across the state, around the world. So we focus on biodiversity with the thought that, one, life has intrinsic value, but two, that diversity and complexity provide resiliency, provide benefits to us as humans for the long-term sustainability of the planet and of a farm itself."

By counting birds, Quinn is developing what he calls the Healthy Farm Index. It's a way to measure ecosystem services. Things like clean water, fertile soil and abundant wildlife that are degrading in some agricultural areas.

"Our goal with the index isn't to say you always want to have more. It's how can you measure what you have, set some goals to improve over time, and then measure that to see, you know, what has changed as a result of either doing something different with your field or just doing something different with your buffers, bringing something into your farm or taking something out."

At another farm in Hamliton County, Quinn points out a small patch of shrubs in a ditch between a farm field and the county road. It doesn't look like much, but he says that's all it takes to have a buffer area that creates a habitat for birds.

"This is one of the spots we've noticed every year has a really high density of shrub land birds nesting here," Quinn said. "Along just this little spot, which (is) maybe 20, 30 meters long, we'll have, right now, there's three birds nesting in there. It's a very small piece of land that has a high impact for these particular species. We found catbirds, thrashers and robins all nesting in this habitat and similar habitat, a tiny amount of land, not taking anything out of production for this farm. This is a practice that could be put in place with relatively low cost."

In addition to the visual counts, Quinn is using portable audio recorders to figure out bird species and numbers. Small, green weather-proof audio recorders are hung in numerous locations and automatically record bird songs at set intervals. (Listen to bird songs Quinn has collected.) When the digital file is brought in from the field, a computer program collects the data.

""We can go back through (and)make recognizers for each individual bird, and then combine those, and that creates a recognizer for the song itself," he said. "And then once we can do that, we can just scan the hours of recording we have and it'll identify the calls for us. So we don't have to go through and you know, listen to one hundred hours for winter. We can just send that through, let the computer, you know, walk through that, tell us how frequently a given bird showed up at that spot versus having to go out every day and sample that. So I think (that's) another great tool, and definitely one that's going to be used more and more in the future. And they're nice 'cause they're completely autonomous, completely waterproof. We had one go through a tornado two years ago and we came and got it the next week and it turned itself on and is still recording."
 

Perry Stoner, NET News

Bird biologist John Quinn photographs a bird nest on a farm in Hamilton County, collecting its songs as a way to study the health of farms.

What does the presence of birds mean to agriculture? It could mean lower chemical costs because the birds feed on pests that can impact crop yields. Less chemical use could mean other environmental benefits too. So far Quinn's focus has been on organic farms, but not just because they're chemical-free.

"We started with organic farmers, I think because they in some respects already had this diversity in place so we could measure it," he said. "It was there. But all the practices with are not-organic specific. If a conventional farmer is interested in change and starts from Point A, measure that with how the farm index, you know measures it every year, they're gonna see positive changes from the practices that are built in. I think a lot of the conventional practice or a lot of the practices that are frequently adopted by organic producers, I mean it's the buffers, the crop rotations, and things that you typically see on organic, but they're certainly not limited to organic.

"One of the farms that the University manages up near Mead, the ARDC property at the Ag Reforestry site, it actually has one of the highest scoring farms on the healthy farm index," Quinn said. "And it's about 600 acres or so. Forty of it's organic. So just a small percentage, and it scores really high cause it has buffers. It has a three-year crop rotation and it takes advantage of windbreaks, which provide an ecosystem service of micro-climate regulation. And it has all these things in place and it's not organic. And so I think it has a lot of potential.

"It's probably more towards the smaller scale farms at this point," he added. "If you're getting really big, you could measure it, but the practices that are rewarded in the index aren't always reflected in those. That doesn't mean that down the line we don't want to work to adapt it or target that group, but it's probably the section size farmers that were really working with."

Quinn would like to see farms given a healthy farm index rating where down the road, the measured biodiversity might have a monetary value attached.

"Ultimately, where we see this healthy farm index potentially having value is if we can turn it around and make it part of a payment for an ecosystem services program," he said. "A lot of conservation programs will reward you or compensate you for taking land out of production ... But can we turn that around and see the economic value of ecosystem services and reward landowners, farmers for that, so, I mean the carbon sequestration, pollination, pest control, things that I mean benefit their farm, but also benefit society broadly. And maybe we have a responsibility to help support some of that. "

As Quinn walked alongside a crop field, an angry thrasher makes a smacking sound to make known its presence. If the edge of a farm field is a good place for a thrasher nest, Quinn concluded that the presence of the thrasher and other birds is good for the farm ecosystem, too. He said many government and nongovernment agencies are paying more attention to farming practices. The healthy farm index could become a way to put a value on those that are sustainable approaches.

(Kids:Learn more about birds through Project Beak)

 

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