Saturday, May 07, 2016

About Birds, Nests and Caretaking

Male Bobolink in the meadow

One of my favourite places to go birding is a large field in the country that contains five large communication towers. The meadow is fenced and no public access is allowed. It is the only regional place I have found that is home to nesting Bobolinks, Horned Larks, Meadowlarks, Grasshopper Sparrows as well as more commonly found birds like Bluebirds, Savannah Sparrows, Killdeer and Goldfinches. Bobolinks are very hard to find and their overall numbers have decreased 74% since the 1960s mainly because of loss of meadow land. They build their nests on the ground and raise one or two broods a season. I took this picture of a male last May when they returned from wintering in South America.

I visited the area one evening in June and was horrified to see that the field had been mowed. The land had not been touched in the several years I had been coming here. Large round bales of meadow grasses and flowers were scattered about and the lack of bird song created an eerie silence. I took one picture and left quickly, very upset that bird habitat was destroyed during nesting season, just for cattle feed. 

Bobolink meadow mowed and baled

We have a lot of farmland surrounding our city. The main crops are corn and soybeans and mixed farms are scarce except among the Old Order Mennonite community. Corn and soybean fields line the roadways kilometer after kilometer.  Corn crops are mainly used for animal feed, ethanol, and processed corn products. Soybeans are also used for animal feed and processed foods. With all the soybeans grown in the area, I cannot buy a single fresh pod of  fresh edamame anywhere because the entire crop is sold through a marketing board before it is planted.

Corn, corn and more corn across the road from the Bobolink meadow

More than half of the grain crop in North America is used for livestock feed, in other words, for meat and dairy production. Factory farming methods have contributed to ecological destruction in other ways. Single commodity crops require large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides which in turn contaminate water supplies and likely contribute to recent declines in pollinator insects. Animals raised in factory farms are given antibiotics routinely and this adds in part to increasing antibiotic resistance. Cattle produce significant amounts of green house gases (methane) and factory farmed animals produce huge amounts of untreated fecal waste.

In 2006 the United Nations produced a report called Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. It claimed, among other things, that livestock create 18% of green house gases which is more than all types of motor vehicles combined. The report is available online or you can read the Wikipedia summary at the link above.

Seven years ago I decided to stop eating meat, mainly for health reasons. I also decreased my dairy intake significantly and the benefits to my well-being were significant. Over time, I continued to abstain from animal products for the good of the environment and for the welfare of the animals themselves. My husband is a meat eater and the dog will not eat vegetables so we have animal products on our grocery list. But our meals are mostly plant based and we try to buy meat and cheese locally, using it sparingly. It is unrealistic to think that the whole world will become vegan but even modest reductions in processed foods and animal products can make a big difference to the environment.

Local Old Order Mennonite farmer harvesting corn on his small mixed farm

I realize our household carbon footprint is still too large. We continue to look for ways to contribute to better environmental and social practices that will make a difference to earth and its inhabitants in future generations. The issues are complex and are different in third world nations than in first world nations. Our demand for inexpensive food, clothing, and other "throw-away" possessions is detrimental to the earth and to the workers in developing nations.

This documentary contains much of the information contained in the 2006 United Nations report on livestock. The first ten minutes or so outline the basic concepts that are discussed.

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species -- man -- 
acquired significant power to alter the nature of the world. ” 
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring


  1. Ruth--you get to the heart of the problem of keeping Mother Earth a sustainable place to live...the issue is so very complex. Add to that the changes brought about by factory farming. Then add to that the lack of political will to address the problem. By the time we get done with all the adding up, our efforts seem so small and we naturally question their effectiveness. BUT--of course, the alternative to do nothing is what really harms us.
    So, you and your family are making your small efforts. If we all followed your example, we would begin to see steps toward improving the environment.
    I have to ask--was the meadow allowed to re-grow?

  2. I didn't go back after June. Things are just beginning to grow again as we have had a cool spring. The Bobolinks should return this week and I will have to see if the land is mowed again this June.

  3. This is a perfect example of how we harm the very environment that sustains us all. It's so sad, really. I've not yet attempted to go meatless, but we do only purchase poultry and meats that are from smaller, organic farms where there is no use of antibiotics or hormones. Seeing habitat destroyed, and then realizing that actions like that are what make species become endangered, makes me so very sad. After the fact, we all stand, slack jawed and wonder, "How could that have happened, and what do we do now?"

  4. My doctor-mom brought us up vegetarian, for health reasons (she had seen under the microscope what is in meat). It has been as I have become an adult and realized the harmful impact of meat production on the world that I have acquired this second reason for what I enjoy so much--good, healthy plant-based food. For me it was easy, being raised this way; I so admire people who make the change in diet as adults.

  5. Grassland birds are severely threatened by bad farming practices; a simple change like delaying haying until after nesting season can have an obvious positive impact - tho it does reduce the quality of the hay.

    I've been reading the last couple years about buffalo and a few producers who are raising them in a sustainable way that also benefits habitats and the surrounding communities. They say well raised buffalo meat is healthier too, tho I don't know that I'd ever try it as I don't often eat red meat.

  6. Having that field plowed was so disappointing.

    As for the rest of it, I agree with the livestock dependency, but I can't help it. Wish I could, but I don't like veggies -- at least not the in their raw or boiled state.

    A very good post though and a worthwhile thing to get upset about.

  7. @ AC- I had an Indian patient who told me how much she hated the way Canadians boiled vegetables. Other cultures do a far better job at preparing tasty vegetarian dishes and we prefer roasted/stir fried/ grilled veggies. I still have leather shoes and leather car seats so I am not condemning meat eaters in any way.

    @ Laura- We can buy buffalo, elk, venison, moose meat at our local market. My husband does like game meat, but it does smell... "gamey". It is leaner meat and not doubt healthier than corn finished cattle.

    @Ginger- Your posts about vegetarian eating were inspirational to me when I was switching over. Growing up in a large family, meat was never the biggest part of our meals. I learned to prepare and eat many types of vegetables and legumes from my mother.

    @Jayne- Even choosing a couple of meatless meals a week would make a difference if everyone did it.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.