Believe it or not, almost every acre we protect benefits bird conservation in Indiana. Like all species, birds need high-quality habitat, and conserving and restoring habitat is at the heart of our mission.
Birds are notoriously sensitive to habitat structure and size, and many species are in rapid decline today. Grassland nesting birds, for example, will not nest in grassland less than 40 acres in size. Due to changes in agriculture, the pastures and hayfields that once supported many grassland species are now planted to corn or beans. As a result, species that require larger grasslands are increasingly out of luck in many agricultural regions. These same tenets hold true for other birds as well, and bigger is definitely better when it comes to nesting birds. Three of our projects have regional benefits that are especially noteworthy and beneficial in this light, and as the projects mature, our work becomes increasingly critical for conserving our rich heritage of Hoosier birds.
At Kankakee Sands, we set out to connect a scattered array of prairie and savanna habitats. We also ensured that we restored habitat for sedge wrens and grasshopper sparrows in the process. With more than 6,000 acres now restored, Kankakee Sands is home to one of the largest assemblages of nesting grassland birds in Indiana. We suspect that over 400 pairs of Henslow’s sparrows nest in the restoration, amazing for a species that is listed as imperiled in 16 states.
The restoration was also designed to provide seasonal habitat for migrating shore birds, and our 100 acre “big pool” restoration is just coming on line this spring. It will be interesting to see just how many additional species we attract during the spring and fall migrations with this newly restored wetland. We hope that this wetland will be large enough to attract many of the rarer nesting shore birds as well.
Our work in the forests of Brown County is all about size, specifically as it relates to birds. Forest nesting songbirds are under multiple threats from nest parasites and predators, and it has long been known that birds nesting in small isolated woodlots seldom rear offspring that survive to adulthood. But nests in large swaths of unbroken forests are much more successful, and our work is focused on ensuring that this site will always be one of the largest forests in the Midwest.
At over 300,000 largely contiguous acres, the forest here is great habitat for sensitive species. The forests in the hills region are a net producer of songbirds—they amply replace themselves here and move on to populate other Midwest forests. But the future always holds uncertainties, and our strategy has been simply to target key inholdings in and adjacent to public lands as they become available for purchase. This helps consolidate large blocks of publically managed forest, ensuring that these habitats will continue to be productive songbird habitat for future generations.
Lower Wabash River
Our strategy along the lower Wabash River is also about scale, and we’re fortunate to be working with several key partners in the area. In 1990, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) began protecting land in Illinois and Indiana, using a variety of conservation tools. Since 2005, The Nature Conservancy has partnered with both the NRCS and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to build upon this amazing work. To date, this partnership has conserved and restored 45,000 acres. While much of this work is intended to help improve the health of the river, it has also had a dramatic effect on the use of the area by migratory birds, especially waterfowl and shorebirds. As more and more habitat was restored, migrating birds noticed and shifted eastward into Indiana during their annual migrations. Just this January, over 250,000 waterfowl were counted on a one-day survey in the lower Wabash floodplains and that same week, an unprecedented number of whooping cranes were scattered along the valley in Indiana and Illinois. This is a good portion of the entire eastern population of whoopers—right here in Indiana! Just imagine the scale of the migration if we can continue to restore floodplain at this pace.
While size is important, don’t discount the importance of work at smaller conservation sites. Many of these preserves, like Big Walnut, Swamp Angel or Harrison County Glades, are the largest natural habitats in their immediate neighborhood and rank as important at the state level, too. With your support, we can ensure that these and other conservation areas across Indiana improve as habitat for future generations.
And that’s not just for the birds!