When you’re wrapping up a long day of moving cattle, the last thing you expect is an audience. But at one southeastern Arizona ranch, so many people were regularly congregating at the main corral, the manager had to post signs to keep crowds safely away from his livestock.
The spectators weren’t there to cheer on the cows. They were there for the birds. Some of them had bird life lists in hand and high hopes of checking off such species as burrowing owl, Sprague’s pipit and Baird’s and grasshopper sparrows.
This particular ranch was rumored to be one of the best places to see the elusive Baird’s sparrow, named by John James Audubon — after ornithologist Spencer Fullerton Baird — on the plains of North Dakota in 1843. Little did anyone know, it would be another 29 years before the bird was recorded again.
Flying Under the Radar
After spending much of the year breeding in prairies from Montana to South Dakota and north into Canada, the Baird’s sparrow migrates to warmer climates in southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and into Mexico. They typically arrive in October — precisely when many avid birders pack their binoculars and begin their quest.
But even the most experienced birder may spend years looking for the reclusive Baird’s sparrow. This tiny songbird spends much of its time on the ground, moving among the grasses to feed on seeds and insects.
Anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Baird’s sparrow — and provide photographic proof — earns certain bragging rights within the birding world. The bird’s knack for staying undercover also makes it difficult for scientists to determine how healthy or threatened the Baird’s sparrow population really is.
On a Wing and a Prayer
While the Baird’s sparrow is not listed as endangered, it relies on healthy prairies and the natural cycles that sustain them — including periodic drought and fires as well as grazing animals. Once a native prairie has been poorly managed, plowed, divided up by roads or taken over by scrub or exotic grasses, the birds become easy prey for predators and parasites.
Since grasslands are our most threatened — and least protected — land type around the world, many migrating grassland birds face an uncertain future as their nesting and wintering habitats deteriorate.
Grassland bird populations have declined significantly over the past half-century as prairies have been converted to agriculture, development and other uses. According to the USGS Breeding Bird Survey, the Baird’s and grasshopper sparrow populations have dropped 71 and 72 percent respectively — and Sprague’s pipit 56 percent — since 1966.
For the past seven years, the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory has been collecting data on 30 grassland bird species found in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. The group’s director of international operations Greg Levandoski says, “it’s clear that southeast Arizona is one of the more important areas in terms of the number of birds that we find there — for both diversity and density.”
All the limited grassland areas in this region are important, adds Levandoski. “Because rainfall in the Chihuahuan Desert is so patchy, we need a network of healthy grasslands so that when one area is too dry, the birds always have another place to go.”
Grasslands Filter Our Water!
In Arizona, healthy grasslands support more than important bird populations. They also support working ranches and help protect critical water supplies.
Arizona’s important waterways, such as the Verde and San Pedro rivers, Aravaipa Creek and the upper Santa Cruz River, all depend on healthy grasslands within the watersheds,” says Conservancy field representative Peter Warren. “Where grasslands have been lost, perennial streams have been lost as well. There’s a direct and tangible link.”
Only about a third of Arizona’s grasslands are in good condition, and those that remain are threatened by lack of fire, exotic species and fragmentation of the landscape.
“Nearly 80 percent of our best grassland valleys in Arizona are private or state-owned lands,” says Warren. “The Conservancy is partnering with private landowners, many of whom are traditional ranchers, and together we’re improving grassland health by limiting erosion, using controlled fire to reduce shrub encroachment, and protecting land from subdivision.”
The fact that some of the best remaining habitat for the Baird’s sparrow and other grassland birds can be found at the corral of an operating ranch in southeast Arizona shows that working the land and conserving important grassland habitat are not mutually exclusive activities.
That’s good news — for the ranchers as well as the sparrows.