Habitat: Where it's at

Earth Day came and went this week, with the usual round of rallies in parks, coloring books for school kids, and some serious and welcome litter removal on a local scale. The state Senate passed a package of bills along to the Assembly dealing with lobsters, shark fins, solar energy, and mercury in light bulbs, as well as whelks, conchs and bay scallops.

As always when it rolls around, there wasn't much mention of farming, except by farmers themselves. They are people who live with the land, and know it better than most. When farms were otherwise mentioned it was mostly to damn "factory farms" and generally abuse modern agriculture.

However, there is another side to the story besides complaints about corn and cows. Farms make a significant contribution to the perpetuation of many species of birds, mammals and smaller organisms by providing them with homes and food. That is to say, habitat.

Habitat is where it's at for wildlife. While raccoons, deer, coyotes and some birds have done a fine job of moving into urban settings and thriving, many others need something different. Farms, particularly smaller farms with diverse habitats common in upstate New York, go a long way toward providing niches for uncountable species of wildlife and birds.

Take for example a once-common member of the nightjar family, the whippoorwill.

A couple of years ago I was sitting at this very kitchen table chatting with a real, live, ornithologist, Pam Hunt. During the course of lively discussion of chickadees, ravens, kestrels and sundry other birds, I asked what happened to the whippoorwills.

I'm sure if you are near my age and grew up in a rural area you remember hearing them, monotonously droning their name from dusk til dawn, night after night, during the firefly summers of youth. Their decline has been precipitous, with one survey in Ontario finding 51 percent fewer birds in the course of 20 years.

As of now, it has been at least 30 years since I heard one and I'm not alone. Our expert visitor had studied this ongoing decline (since the '60s and '70s) of the once-ubiquitous birds, and blamed it in large part on the loss of small farms. From NH Audubon, where Hunt is a senior biologist in bird conservation, "Habitat may be a key to the decline of the whip-poor-will. This is a species of the edge, needing both forested areas for nesting and open areas for foraging. As a result it typically reaches its highest densities in partially agricultural landscapes, along utility rights-of-way, and in forests subject to frequent disturbance (e.g., fire in pine barrens)."

Seems that cow pastures, the hedgerows around them, and woodlands that are logged off occasionally provide ideal habitat for the small, leaf-colored birds of the night. As farming is abandoned for other enterprises, the birds and animals that live there slowly vanish.

Whippoorwills are not alone either. In some southern states, bobwhite quail numbers decreased by as much as 90 percent in the same time frame. The popular little game birds require much the same varied habitat as do whippoorwills and such habitat is declining rapidly. While the former birds have been more or less ignored as they melt away, there are aggressive programs afoot to increase habitat for quail. Many of these involve encouraging small farms to provide habitat.

I remember living just down the road from here as a kid and waking up every morning to the bob bob white of a cheerful quail calling from behind our house. A range map will not show them living in New York so probably the birds of my childhood were introduced from a hunting preserve near here. However, I miss them. Likewise, the barn owls that nested in the old barn back then, those wonderful, white ghosts spooking out through the windows each evening to hunt the mice that rustled through the overgrown hayfields. They are mostly gone too, a species of special concern here in New York. Once again, habitat is key, with the elusive, pale, hunters preferring grasslands for their nocturnal predations and loving old barns and buildings as nesting sites.

Loss of habitat is cited in the decline of a wide variety of other New York birds, with an overall drop of 68 percent in the past few decades. While intensification in agriculture is one issue cited, suburban sprawl and industrial development are considered to be prominent factors. Small and medium-sized farms, on the other hand, often host an amazing diversity of wild species.

Last year I struggled with a broken foot bone. Although I trudged back and forth to the barn to milk the cows and help with chores, perambulating around the farm wasn't an option most of the summer. However, my fascination with birding didn't wane with the pain, so I spent spring and summer counting the species of birds that could be seen or heard from the five or 10 acres encompassed by our back yard, barnyard, and farm buildings.

Fifty-seven species visited, or at least flew past the little area in the course of two seasons. Certainly, all of those birds don't nest here. The bald eagles were just visiting. Ditto the great blue and green herons. Mergansers aren't big on hay fields either, but bobolinks are. Three species of flycatchers called the place home. Warblers, assorted sparrows, a rainbow of finches, orioles, grosbeaks and hummingbirds summered with us, to name just a few.

New York state has roughly 36,000 farms of various sizes, many of them smaller, conventional-style operations. If 57 species visited our yard, with plenty of them nesting nearby, imagine how many call those myriad farms home.

As state initiatives encourage dairy farming by easing regulations and funding improvements to support the state's burgeoning new yogurt industry, I suspect that they are helping plenty of wild animals and birds survive to see future Earth Days as well.

This year I am trying to count our whole farm. Just call it an Earth Year.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs

at http://northviewdiary.blogspot.com/