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Balancing birds and biofuels: Grasslands support more species than cornfields

In Wisconsin, bioenergy is for the birds. Really.

In a study published today in the journal PLOS ONE, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) scientists examined whether corn and perennial grassland fields in southern Wisconsin could provide both biomass for bioenergy production and bountiful bird habitat.

The research team found that where there are grasslands, there are birds. Grass-and-wildflower-dominated fields supported more than three times as many bird species as cornfields, including 10 imperiled species found only in the grasslands. These grassland fields can also produce ample biomass for renewable fuels.

Monica Turner, UW-Madison professor of zoology, and study lead author Peter Blank, a postdoctoral researcher in her lab, hope the findings help drive decisions that benefit both birds and biofuels, too, by providing information for land managers, farmers, conservationists and policy makers as the bioenergy industry ramps up, particularly in Wisconsin and the central U.S.

“As bioenergy production demand increases, we should pay attention to the ecological consequences,” says Turner.

This is especially true for grassland birds, as populations of species like the eastern meadowlark, dickcissel and the bobolink have declined in recent decades.

The study began when UW-Madison’s Carol Williams, coordinator of the Wisconsin Grasslands Bioenergy Network, and the DNR’s David Sample approached Turner and asked for her help. They wanted to know: “What are the implications of the decisions we make about how we use our lands?” says Turner.

The research team carefully selected 30 different grassland sites — three of which are already used for small-scale bioenergy production — and 11 cornfields in southern Wisconsin. Over the course of two years, the researchers characterized the vegetation growing in each field, calculated and estimated the biomass yields possible, and counted the total numbers of birds and bird species observed in them.

According to Blank and Turner, the study is one of the first to examine grassland fields already producing biomass for biofuels and is one of only a few analyses to examine the impact of bioenergy production on birds.

While previous studies suggest corn is a more profitable biofuel crop than grasses and other types of vegetation, the new findings indicate grassland fields may represent an acceptable tradeoff between creating biomass for bioenergy and providing habitat for grassland birds. The landscape could benefit other species, too.

Because they are perennial, the grassland fields can also be used year after year, following best management practices that preserve the health of the soil and provide reliable habitat for migratory birds.

“Plant diversity is good for wildlife diversity,” says Blank. “Our study suggests diverse bioenergy crop fields could benefit birds more so than less diverse fields.”

Among the grasslands studied, the team found monoculture grasses supported fewer birds and fewer bird species than grasslands with a mix of grass types and other kinds of vegetation, like wildflowers.

… new findings indicate grassland fields may represent an acceptable tradeoff between creating biomass for bioenergy and providing habitat for grassland birds.

The team found that the presence of grasslands within one kilometer of the study sites also helped boost bird species diversity and bird density in the area.

This is an opportunity, Turner says, to inform large-scale land use planning. By locating biomass-producing fields near existing grasslands, both birds and the biofuels industry can win.

Incentives for a conservation-minded approach could be used to help offset potential differences in profit, the researchers suggest. They also add that the biomass yields calculated in the study may represent the low end of what is possible, given that one of the two study years, 2012, occurred during a significant drought period in the state.

“The study shows species generally really benefit from the practice,” says Blank. “We really can produce bioenergy and provide habitat for rare birds in the state.”

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

US (CA): Extreme heat and birds threaten Valley grapes

US (CA): Extreme heat and birds threaten Valley grapes

Some Valley growers are in a race against time. The heat is ripening grapes on the vine while labourers work shorter hours because of the high heat. Bright reflective foil strips fly over a Madera vineyard to keep the birds away from the red flame seedless grapes.

Michelle Shackelford of Robert Johnson Farms explained, “Hopefully the wind scares the birds away by flapping the tape.” But Shackelford said the strips don’t keep enough of the hungry birds away. “No, they don’t. It lasts for about a day. Helps for about a day.”

Fortunately the grape crop was healthy and heavy. Shackelford said the red flame harvest started a little early this year. In another week all of the bunches will be a nice red colour because of the intense heat.

Michelle said, “This heat is pushing them to colour. They’re colouring much faster.”

The leafy canopy helps protect the grapes from sunburn as does the grass growing in each row. Shackelford said, “Grapes need circulation, air circulation to prevent mildew growth but on top they like a nice umbrella.”

Shackelford added the hot streak will damage some of her varieties.

“It’s also going to impact I think the Thompson crop, “said Shackelford. “I think we’re going to see some burn on 5-10% of the crop.”

The red flames are sold locally at The Market and Whole Foods under the Robert Johnson Farms label as well as the Jenelle brand, which combines the names of Michelle and her sister Jennifer.

Please click here to view the video report.

Source: abc30.com

Publication date: 7/9/2014


FreshPlaza.com

US (CA): Extreme heat and birds threaten Valley grapes

US (CA): Extreme heat and birds threaten Valley grapes

Some Valley growers are in a race against time. The heat is ripening grapes on the vine while labourers work shorter hours because of the high heat. Bright reflective foil strips fly over a Madera vineyard to keep the birds away from the red flame seedless grapes.

Michelle Shackelford of Robert Johnson Farms explained, “Hopefully the wind scares the birds away by flapping the tape.” But Shackelford said the strips don’t keep enough of the hungry birds away. “No, they don’t. It lasts for about a day. Helps for about a day.”

Fortunately the grape crop was healthy and heavy. Shackelford said the red flame harvest started a little early this year. In another week all of the bunches will be a nice red colour because of the intense heat.

Michelle said, “This heat is pushing them to colour. They’re colouring much faster.”

The leafy canopy helps protect the grapes from sunburn as does the grass growing in each row. Shackelford said, “Grapes need circulation, air circulation to prevent mildew growth but on top they like a nice umbrella.”

Shackelford added the hot streak will damage some of her varieties.

“It’s also going to impact I think the Thompson crop, “said Shackelford. “I think we’re going to see some burn on 5-10% of the crop.”

The red flames are sold locally at The Market and Whole Foods under the Robert Johnson Farms label as well as the Jenelle brand, which combines the names of Michelle and her sister Jennifer.

Please click here to view the video report.

Source: abc30.com

Publication date: 7/9/2014


FreshPlaza.com

No-till soybean fields give (even some rare) birds foothold in Illinois

Jan. 22, 2014 — Researchers report in a new study that several bird species — some of them relatively rare — are making extensive use of soybean fields in Illinois. The team found significantly more birds and a greater diversity of bird species nesting, roosting and feeding in no-till soybean fields than in tilled fields.

The team spent about 13 weeks each spring and summer in 2011 and 2012 scouring a total of 24 fields (12 per year) in two counties in Central Illinois. The fields were 18 to 20 hectares (44-49 acres) on average, and the researchers walked roughly 3,200 kilometers (1,988 miles) in the course of the study.

The team found more bird nests and greater species diversity in the no-till fields than in the tilled soybeans. Nest losses were high, however. About 80 percent of nests in the no-till fields and more than 90 percent in tilled fields failed as a result of predation or the onset of farm operations before eggs hatched or young birds were ready to fly.

High mortality is fairly common in bird nests, however, and while the losses in no-till soybean fields were greater than those seen in pristine grasslands, they were not much worse, the researchers said.

A paper describing the research appears in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment.

“I was surprised to see all the different birds that are using these agricultural fields — especially during spring migration,” said Kelly VanBeek, a wildlife biologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources who conducted the study while a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I was shocked by the variety of sparrow species that we saw — white-crowned sparrows and white-throated sparrows, for example.”

Some of the birds using no-till fields are grassland species that have been in decline across the Midwest for decades, said Michael Ward, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at Illinois and an author of the study. One species found nesting in a no-till soybean field, the upland sandpiper, was an exciting find.

“The upland sandpiper is a state-endangered species. It’s doing badly throughout its range,” Ward said. “Historically, it probably followed bison herds and liked really short grass, but we don’t have that anymore. We found that it’s going to these no-till fields where the herbaceous cover early in the year is not that thick — which is what it likes — and we actually found a nest.”

The study adds to the evidence that agricultural practices can have a broad influence on bird abundance and diversity, said natural resources and environmental sciences professor and department head Jeffrey Brawn, a co-author of the study.

“Generally row crops are not good for wildlife,” Brawn said. “They’re just not. But this paper shows that in situ agricultural production — depending on how you do it — can have some benefits for wildlife.”

The team also found other grassland species that are in decline — Eastern meadowlarks, ring-necked pheasants and field sparrows — nesting in no-till fields.

“If you look at birds in general or wildlife in general, the ones that did occupy grassland habitat are the ones whose populations have tanked the most,” Brawn said. “But birds are very resilient, they’re very resourceful and they’re very flexible, and we can take advantage of that.”

Of the nests that failed, 65.1 percent were raided by predators and 24.4 percent were lost to farm machinery during crop planting. Continuously recording cameras trained on nests showed that coyotes were the primary predators of the ground-level nests — another surprise.

“This just shows that we do have predators in these landscapes, which is a good thing,” VanBeek said. “Several decades ago, we didn’t have coyotes here; we had completely lost those predator species that bring some ecological balance. We may not be in a balanced situation yet, but at least they’re present.”

The study points to a major opportunity for bird conservation, Ward said. Rather than buying up modest tracts of land for wildlife preservation, an approach that is minimally effective, he said, farmers and conservationists could work together to maximize the ecological role that no-till lands are already playing in the Midwest.

If farmers could be convinced to plant their soybeans a few days later in the spring, for example, it would increase the nesting success of several bird species that are out there now, Ward said. A pilot program in Indiana is testing this approach, compensating farmers for losses that stem from the planting delay, he said.

“There’s so much land in agriculture that if only 3 or 4 percent of farmers adopted this approach, it would have a greater effect than all the land that we have in wildlife preserves in Illinois,” he said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available) 35.5 percent of U.S. cropland, some 88 million acres, were in no-till production.

“Most people, they drive past corn and soybean fields in Illinois and they say there’s no way there’s value for wildlife in those,” VanBeek said. “But we’ve proved there is. These agricultural fields are not ecological wastelands. There’s some value there.”

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Constructed wetlands save frogs, birds threatened with extinction

Jan. 21, 2014 — Over the last few decades, several thousands of wetlands have been constructed in Sweden in agricultural landscapes. The primary reason is that the wetlands prevent a surfeit of nutrients from reaching our oceans and lakes. A study from Halmstad University shows, in addition, that wetlands have contributed to saving several frog and bird species from the “Red List” — a list that shows which species are at risk of dying out in Sweden. In the latest update, five of the nine red-listed bird species that breed in wetlands-including the little grebe and the little ringed plover-could be taken off the list. Yet another bird species was moved to a lower threat category. As regards batrachians, four species-among them the European tree frog-have been taken off the list, and two species have been moved to a lower threat category.

Great effect on biological diversity

“An important objective in constructing wetlands is reducing eutrophication — over-fertilization. It’s surprisingly positive that they’ve also had such a great direct effect on biological diversity,” says Stefan Weisner, Professor of Biology specialising in environmental science at Halmstad University.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the amount of wetlands in Sweden decreased drastically: almost all original wetlands in agricultural areas have disappeared through drainage and land reclamation. This has affected many of the plants and animals that depend on these types of environments.

An inexpensive way to reduce eutrophication

Over the last 15 years, nearly 3,000 wetland areas have been constructed in agricultural landscapes around Sweden. Farmers have the possibility of receiving economic support for this from sources such as the Swedish Board of Agriculture. The primary reason is because wetlands catch the surfeit of nutrients from agriculture such as nitrogen and phosphorus-substances that would otherwise have leaked out into the seas and lakes and contributed to eutrophication.

The study shows that creation of wetlands is a cost-effective to catch the nutrients.

“It’s a very effective way of purifying the water. It’s less expensive than constructing treatment plants, and in addition it contributes to biological diversity,” Prof Weisner says.

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Journal Reference:

  1. John A. Strand, Stefan E.B. Weisner. Effects of wetland construction on nitrogen transport and species richness in the agricultural landscape—Experiences from Sweden. Ecological Engineering, 2013; 56: 14 DOI: 10.1016/j.ecoleng.2012.12.087

Note: If no author is given, the source is cited instead.

Agriculture and Food News — ScienceDaily

Pest-eating birds mean money for coffee growers

Sep. 5, 2013 — This is the first time scientists have assigned a monetary value to the pest-control benefits rainforest birds can provide to agriculture. Their study could provide the framework for pest management that helps both farmers and biodiversity.

In recent years, Stanford biologists have found that coffee growers in Costa Rica bolster bird biodiversity by leaving patches of their plantations as untouched rainforest.

The latest finding from these researchers suggests that the birds are returning the favor to farmers by eating an aggressive coffee bean pest, the borer beetle, thereby improving coffee bean yields by hundreds of dollars per hectare.

The study is the first to put a monetary value on the pest-control benefits rainforest can provide to agriculture, which the researchers hope can inform both farmers and conservationists.

“The benefits that we might get are huge,” said Daniel Karp, a graduate student in biology and lead author of the study. “There’s lots of unrealized value in these small patches of rainforest. This looks like a sustainable, win-win opportunity for pest management.”

The researchers hope that the work will improve conservation efforts in heavily farmed areas by illustrating to farmers the financial benefits of leaving some land in its natural state, while also guiding governments toward the best conservation methods.

Worldwide scourge

By some accounts, coffee is the world’s most economically profitable crop, and its harvest supports the livelihoods of some 100 million people globally. Coffee beans around the world, however, are threatened by the pervasive beetle.

The insect burrows into the beans and eats its way out, ruining the beans. It originated in Africa and has made its way into nearly every major coffee-producing country. It arrived in Hawaii two years ago, and coffee plantations there are already experiencing 50 to 75 percent less yield.

“It’s the only insect that competes with us for coffee beans,” Karp said. “It’s the most damaging insect pest by far, causing some $ 500 million in damage per year.”

Stanford biologists have been studying the intersection of nature and agriculture in Costa Rica since the 1990s, in part because of the vast amounts of land in that country dedicated to coffee production. The borer beetle arrived in the past few years, and Karp’s group began to investigate whether farms with protected forests, and thus a greater biodiversity of insect-eating birds, fared better under attack from the insects.

A ‘not-so-glamorous’ experiment

To quantify the benefit birds provide to plantations, the researchers first calculated coffee bean yield — the amount of healthy, beetle-free beans that could be harvested — of infected plants that were housed in bird-proof cages versus yield from infected plants in the open, where birds were eating the beetles.

Next, they needed to confirm which species of birds were eating the beetles, and whether the birds required forest to survive. This required a more unorthodox approach.

“We had the not-so-glamorous task of collecting the birds’ poop, and then taking it back to Stanford and looking through the DNA within it to learn which birds were the pest preventers,” Karp said.

Five species of birds contributed to cutting infestation rates in half, and these birds were more abundant on farms featuring more forests.

“Depending on the season, the birds provide $ 75 to $ 310 increases in yield per hectare of farmland,” Karp said. The birds’ activity could become even more valuable if the beetle infestation worsens.

The scientists found that the closer the forests were to the farms, the greater benefit the birds provided. Specifically, smaller stands of trees — roughly the size of a few football fields — situated throughout crop fields provided better levels of beetle protection than the much larger forest preserves set on the outskirts of farms.

By differentiating the financial gains of different conservation strategies — large but distant preserves versus small, local stands of trees — Karp thinks the study could provide a framework for introducing similar efforts in agricultural zones around the world.

“This work suggests that it might be economically advantageous to not farm in certain areas of a plantation,” Karp said. “We’re going to start trying to generalize these results so that farmers, conservationists, land managers and governments can use them anywhere to make simple estimates of what they might gain in pest protection by protecting certain patches of the landscape.”

The study was published in the online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Ecology Letters. The work was co-authored by Stanford biology Professors Gretchen Daily, Paul Ehrlich and Elizabeth Hadly; biology graduate student Chase Mendenhall; Nicolas Chaumont, a software engineer at the Natural Capital Project; and Randi Figueroa Sandi, a field assistant in Copal de Agua Buena in Costa Rica.

ScienceDaily: Agriculture and Food News

Snakes devour more mosquito-eating birds as climate change heats forests

July 11, 2013 — Many birds feed on mosquitoes that spread the West Nile virus, a disease that killed 286 people in the United States in 2012 according to the Centers for Disease Control. Birdsalso eat insects that can be agricultural pests. However, rising temperatures threaten wild birds, including the Missouri-native Acadian flycatcher, by making snakes more active, according to University of Missouri biologist John Faaborg. He noted that farmers, public health officials and wildlife managers should be aware of complex indirect effects of climate change in addition to the more obvious influences of higher temperatures and irregular weather patterns.

“A warmer climate may be causing snakes to become more active and seek more baby birds for food,” said Faaborg, professor of biological sciences in MU’s College of Arts and Science. “Although our study used 20 years of data from Missouri, similar threats to bird populations may occur around the world. Increased snake predation on birds is an example of an indirect consequence that forecasts of the effects of climate change often do not take into account.”

In the heart of Missouri’s Ozark forest, cooler temperatures usually make snakes less active than in the edge of the forest or in smaller pockets of woodland. However, during abnormally hot years, even the interior of the forest increases in temperature. Since snakes are cold-blooded, warmer temperatures make the reptiles more active and increase their need for food. Previous studies using video cameras found that snakes are major predators of young birds.

Over the past twenty years, fewer young Acadian flycatchers (Empidonax virescens) survived during hotter years, according to research by Faaborg and his colleagues published in the journal Global Change Biology. Survival of young indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea) also decreased during warmer years. Faaborg suggested that a likely reason for decreased baby bird survival in hot years was an increase in snake activity. Faaborg, his colleagues and his former students, collected the data used in the study during two decades of fieldwork.

“Low survival in the Ozark nests harms bird numbers in other areas,” Faaborg said. “Birds hatched in the Ozark forest spread out to colonize the rest of the state and surrounding region. Small fragments of forests in the rest of the state do not support successful bird reproduction, so bird populations in the entire state depend on the Ozarks.”

In addition to his position in the College of Arts and Science, Faaborg is an adjunct professor in the School of Natural Resources in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The American Associate for the Advancement of Science elected Faaborg a fellow in 2001.

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ScienceDaily: Agriculture and Food News