The Bobolink Odyssey

This project started in 2002 to answer a fairly simple question—how do birds respond to a gradient of grassland management for hayfield and pasture management?  Over this time we have found >2500 Savannah Sparrow and Bobolink nests and banded around 7500 adults and nestlings.  In the first year or two we discovered that the management effects are clear, but individual bird’s responses to these effects are complex and fascinating.  As a result, the work has evolved into a project that looks at diverse ecological and evolutionary questions and has involved many collaborators from universities (particularly Allan Strong, University of Vermont, Patty Parker, University of Missouri-St. Louis), state and federal agencies (Toby Alexander, NRCS), and non profits (Roz Renfrew, Vermont Center for Ecostudies).   This work has also stretched in to conservation,

9 day old Savannah Sparrows chicks about to fledge

9 day old Savannah Sparrows chicks about to fledge

working with the Vermont Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA) to create a successful and broadly deployed haying program for intensive dairy farms that balances both bird and farmer needs.

Today, the project is a long-term life-cycle study. We cannot explain it perfectly, but in this study system, nestlings of both species and sexes return to breed at a very high rate on or very near the fields their were born.  This behavior allows us to track lineages of birds, a highly unique opportunity for maintain migratory songbirds. Our goal is to follow these lineages for as long as they last, and to know everything we can about them: number of offspring produced, annual survival, dispersal within the landscape, mate selection, timing and location of nesting, and perhaps most fantastic, migration.  We continue to track Bobolinks with geolocators, and in the near future plan to also track Savannah Sparrows.

Other recent mini-projects within the long-term work include looking at the effects of habitat edge on nest success, evaluating the offspring sex ratio and processes that influence it, understanding the costs and benefits of divorce, and assessing both first-year and adult survival and the processes that affect them respectively.  Finally, we also study Bobolinks in far off places, namely the Galapagos.  In Oct 2015, Perlut and colleagues went to Galapagos to study Bobolinks role in parasite transmission on the islands (see our published work on this issue at Levin et al. 2015 and Levin et al. 2013).

Eastern Meadowlark banded in Hinesburg, VT

Eastern Meadowlark banded in Hinesburg, VT

Eastern Meadowlark nest

Eastern Meadowlark nest in hayfield in Hinesburg, VT

Savannah Sparrows egg pipping

Savannah Sparrows egg pipping

Savannah Sparrow on a pasture in Hinesburg

Press about the project:

VT Digger

6/17/2013

 

Burlington Free Press

The mysteries of the bobolink: Noah Perlut has spent 11 years studying the yellow-capped singers that grace Vermont hayfields. What he has learned has changed our understanding of the birds and what must be done to insure their survival.Color banded Savannah Sparrow

1st spring record for Vermont of a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, accidently caught in a hayfield in Shelburne, VT

Female Bobolink wearing a radio transmitter, Shelburne, VT

Male Bobolink

Bobolink chicks exploding out of the nest!

Color-banded male Bobolink

Color-banded male Bobolink

Male Bobolink wearing a geolocator

Male Bobolink wearing a geolocator

Beginning to hay....

Beginning to hay….

Nest chrunched during haying

Nest chrunched during haying

Ring-billed Gulls feasting on bugs, mice, frogs, birds eggs and nestlings, and just about anything else they can find.

Ring-billed Gulls feasting on bugs, mice, frogs, birds eggs and nestlings, and just about anything else they can find.

by Candice Page, Jun 10, 2012

Audubon Magazine

Buying Time: For bobolinks, savannah sparrows, and other birds that make their nests in hayfields, a delayed harvest can spell the difference between life and death. 

By Les Line
Published: November-December 2009