Iowa home for local birds with global importance
Becky Visser, Marion County Conservation Naturalist Technician, with Marla Mertz, MCCB Naturalist
Have you been so fortunate to see one of Iowa’s marvels soaring through the sky? Birds such as the bald eagle, sandhill crane, and the yellow-billed cuckoo (right) are just a few of the many birds that are classified as priority birds for Iowa’s bird conservation efforts. The drastic decline in many of Iowa’s native bird species in the last two decades has led to high conservation efforts in maintaining and re-populating at-risk bird species. Organizations such as the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI) have put forth efforts in protecting many threatened bird species. One of the largest and most effective conservation efforts in Iowa is establishing bird conservation areas (BCA).
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Bureau’s awareness of the climatic decline of many of Iowa’s birds established the Iowa’s BCA program in 2001. The initiative was first established to help maintain bird populations of breeding grassland birds. Now the conservation push has expanded to wetland, woodland, and savanna areas. Bird Conservation Areas have swept across Iowa’s land and all through the United States. Iowa DNR has set specific requirements for an area to be classified as a Bird Conservation Area. The area should include 10,000 acres of public and/or private lands in which 25% of that land is key bird habitat like grassland or savanna. Within the conservation area, there should be a core region which is essential for bird populations to sustain quality nesting areas and habitat.
Iowa’s Bird Conservation Areas are divided into three categories: eastern tallgrass prairie, prairie pothole, and prairie to hardwood transition region. Tallgrass prairie regions are the most prominent habitats and are considered core bird conservation areas in Iowa. There are approximately 80 high priority birds on the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie Bird Conservation Region (see map above). The Iowa DNR designated the first BCA in 2011. The Kellerton Grasslands BCA, in Ringgold County, is within this Eastern Tallgrass Prairie Region.
Birds such as the northern harrier (left) and the short-eared owl are classified as endangered with other species including the long-eared owl and the Henslow’s sparrow are labeled as threatened species. All BCAs have a few umbrella species that are the focus of establishing the conservation area. The Kellerton Grassland BCA is managed for the greater prairie chicken, but a host of grassland birds will benefit. Another example is the Spring Run Grasslands in Dickinson County was the second BCA to be created in Iowa. These grasslands serve as a quality habitat for migratory and grassland nesting birds that are in need of conservation efforts.
Birds like dickcissel (below right), grasshopper sparrow (right), bobolinks, and northern harriers are a few of the bird species that nest in these vast grasslands. With conservation efforts, these birds will have an opportunity to repopulate and thrive in a safe, stable environment.
Learn more about the greater prairie chicken within these pages:
The most recent BCA established is Stephens State Forest Thousand Acres located in southern Iowa. This BCA was established in 2014 making it the 19th BCA in Iowa and the fourth BCA that is located within a state forest. This BCA isn’t composed of only grassland or only woodland, it is a mix, with 41% woodland and 40% grassland. Stephens State Forest is a key nesting area for the state endangered red-shouldered hawk and state threatened grassland birds like Henslow’s sparrow. This forest is recorded to be nesting ground for 114 of Iowa’s regular nesting birds, and provides habitat for close to half of Iowa’s migratory birds.
Bird Conservation Areas have been making a dramatic impact on Iowa wildlife. Along with protecting and providing nesting habitat for many of Iowa’s native species, these areas have a positive influence on non-consumptive wildlife recreation. Birdwatching, or birding, is one of North America’s fastest growing pastimes, with about 50-70 million participants in the United States. Surveys have shown that birdwatching assists in economic gains for communities surrounding the conservation area. In 2006, Iowa residents and nonresidents spent $304 million on wildlife-watching in Iowa. Several Iowa recreation areas and parks have been creating birding trails, where birdwatchers can see the numerous birds in that area.
Birdwatchers have made great scientific observations and contributions around the state. When the public contributes to science by photographing and monitoring unique birds within specific habitats, the data can be utilized to show the density and populations of a specific area. Remember, you don’t have to be a biologist to contribute to the scientific community. If we, as a community, unite together in order to protect and conserve Iowa birds, generations to come will be able to enjoy the beautiful wonders that fly Iowa’s skies.
Learn more from these sites:
- Iowa Department of Natural Resources Bird Conservation Areas (PDF brochures available of all Iowa BCA)
- Important Bird Areas of Iowa
- Waterman Prairie Wildlife Area Bird Conservation Area
- Grand River Grassland BirdConservation Area
- Iowa Ornithologists' Union
- Protecting Migratory Birds
- Migratory Bird State of the Birds Report
- Saving Important Bird Areas Audubon
- The Makoke Trail: A guide to Birding in Central Iowa