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Learning from the Birds

Working summers on the Matador Ranch

For the second year in a row, I spent much of my summer based at the Conservancy's Matador Ranch as a crew leader counting birds on Montana’s Northern Prairies.  Most of North America’s grassland birds aren’t big and flashy. In fact, many are commonly lumped into the catchall category of LBBs- Little Brown Birds. And yet, they can tell us a lot about the health of this very rapidly disappearing natural habitat.

You might imagine that counting birds involves a sharp set of eyes and excellent pair of binoculars. And while visual acuity is an asset to any field biologist, when it comes to grassland birds, a good set of ears may be your most valuable tool. Since most of these little guys hang out in the grass, well camouflaged from potential predators, trying to spot them or identify them on the wing isn’t easy. That’s why everyone on the crew is required to pass an auditory identification test. This involves sitting in a corner plugged into an iPod for hours on end memorizing the calls of the 70-plus species of birds we may come across in the grasslands of Phillips County. 

Once you pass the audio test, the real fun begins. That old adage about the early bird applies equally to scientists who study them. Each day, we all rise well before the sun is up, jump in the truck, and head out from our base at the to acquire data on some of the most pristine grassland in the country.

We collect data on the birds from 6am to 10am -- noting every bird we hear or see at a number of computer generated GPS locations. After 10am the crew switches to collecting plants from all the areas where we recorded the birds. This vegetation data helps us compare which birds are using what type of plant. Is the grass cover dense or sparse? How tall is it and of what species? Does a particular bird seem to prefer a territory of 10 acres, 100 acres, or 1000 acres? By analyzing the information gathered by these field crews, the staff at the Matador works with ranchers to create grazing plans that allows cattle to help maintain and encourage the best mix of grass for the birds and cattle.

Besides learning about birds, I was also coming to know the people who make their living on this vast, remote prairie. Each of us spent a day on the ranch of one of the families who are part of the Matador Grassbank. We helped them move cattle and repair fences. During that day we all had experiences similar to one another; a great time with individuals who may not have seen the landscape in the same way as we biologists, but who felt just as strong about conserving it – it was a strong bond.

Over the course of the summer everyone in the “bird crew” came to the conclusion that we were all a part of conservation taking place within a community in a really positive way. When it was time for my fellow crew members to leave I knew that we’d built lasting friendships around hours of hard work but most importantly that we had a positive impact on conserving a great part of America through science and community.  If these birds in Montana’s Northern Prairies only knew the knowledge they provided, they would ask for a pay raise!

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