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All This For One Bird?

With the launch of the Kirtland’s Warbler Habitat Restoration Initiative, there’s one question that we’ve heard continuously: why would you restore an entire habitat for just one species? While it may seem that the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) is the star of the project, the choice to include it in the name of the initiative is one of convenience. The “Sandy Oak-Pine Ecosystem Restoration Project” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. The wider goal of the project is to restore a lost oak-pine ecosystem that’s home to countless species. This includes several Species at Risk. By bringing back the habitat of the Kirtland’s Warbler, all these species will benefit. Here are a few of the inhabitants of this lost ecosystem, which we hope to see thrive at our restoration site.


The Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

Status in Ontario: Threatened

This yellow-breasted bird is celebrated for its melodious song. The mnemonic “spring-of-the-YEAR!” is sometimes used to help remember it. A grassland species, meadowlarks are often found in agricultural fields. In the spring, males can often be seen singing from fence posts along country roads while establishing territories and looking for mates. Meadowlarks nest on the ground. Their nests are often destroyed by farmers while mowing hay early in the season. Habitat loss and the shift from smaller family farms to large-scale agricultural operations have contributed to their decline. Eastern Meadowlark populations have dropped by 75% in the past fifty years.


The Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)

Status in Ontario: Threatened

The Bobolink is onomatopoeically named for its distinctive, bubbly song (“bob-o-LINK!”). This grassland bird shares many of the same habitats as the Eastern Meadowlark. Female Bobolink are mottled brown like a sparrow and have a yellowish head. Males are black with patches of white, and tan colouring on the back of their heads (imagine a blonde toupee). Most of their diet is comprised of seeds, along with some insects and other invertebrates. Bobolinks are long-distance migrants, traveling as far south as the Argentinian Pampas in winter. This works out to a 22,000 km round trip each year!  In Ontario, their population has declined by 33% between 2003 and 2013. Much like the meadowlark, habitat loss and changes in agricultural practices are the culprits.


The Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)

Status in Ontario: Special Concern

True to their name, grasshoppers are a favourite food of this tiny, grassland sparrow. They’re often difficult to spot in their preferred habitats of prairies and hayfields. The males can sometimes be spotted singing from fence posts in the spring. Their song is buzzy and can easily be confused for an insect.  Like many grassland birds, Grasshopper Sparrows nest on the ground. These shy, mousey little sparrows often prefer to walk or run rather than fly. Habitat loss and large-scale agricultural development have caused their populations to decline by 72% over the past fifty years.


The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Status in Ontario: Threatened

Unlike many owls, the Short-eared Owl will hunt during the day. They’re sometimes spotted on fence posts surveying farm fields for their small mammalian prey. Voles are a particular favourite. In wintertime, they sometimes congregate in large groups. Short-eared Owl populations appear to be declining in Ontario. Their numbers fluctuate over time, making it challenging for scientists to assess long-term trends. Requiring large grassland areas, habitat loss is likely responsible for the apparent drop in their numbers. A favourite of wildlife photographers, this species is vulnerable to human harassment.


The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Status in Ontario: Threatened

The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is named for its upturned, pig-like snout. They use their snouts to dig and burrow in the sand. They vary considerably in colour and patterning. They’re sometimes mistaken for rattlesnakes and their broad necks vaguely resemble a cobra’s hood. Because of this, the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake has faced human persecution throughout their range. Like a possum, they will play dead when threatened, lying on their back, mouth agape. Toads are the favourite prey of Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes. They prefer sandy habitats like oak savannah and tallgrass prairie. When visiting these environments, you can sometimes spot their tracks and burrows in the sand. Habitat loss is a major threat to this species. In Southern Ontario, they’ve been reduced to a handful of small, fragmented populations. Some of these may not be able to sustain themselves in the long term. Road mortality is another significant threat to their survival.


The Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Status in Ontario: Special Concern

One of the most beloved insects in the world, the Monarch is a powerful symbol of conservation. They’re famous for their epic migration, which occurs between Canada and Mexico each year. It takes several generations of butterflies to complete this arduous journey. Monarchs are strongly associated with their host plant milkweed. They lay their eggs on milkweed and their caterpillars eat the leaves after hatching. The loss of native wildflowers is one of the factors threatening their survival. Habitat loss, development, deforestation, and climate change have all contributed to their decline. Planting native species is a fantastic way to help support Monarchs and other pollinators. The planting of milkweed in Canada, the US, and Mexico to help migrating Monarchs is a great example of international cooperation in conservation.

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