Plan aims to create haven on Fermilab campus for rapidly declining bird species

In this photo, a red tractor moves through tall green grass, presumably mowing. A sky full of white clouds above, treeline in background.

The Eola Grassland Restoration Plan will attract grassland bird species to nest on the Fermilab campus. Photo: Noelle Nelson

If you’ve come through the East entrance and driven down Eola Road lately, you may have noticed that the grasslands look different. Some grass is tall, some is really short.

The Northeast and Northwest Eola Grasslands are a part of an experimental management plan for the rapidly declining grassland birds in North America. In 2009, grassland birds were among the “most consistently declining birds in North America,” according to that year’s State of the Birds report. In 2019, the same report said they’d “suffered the steepest losses, with over 700 million birds lost.” This represents a 53% decline since 1970.

The Eola Grassland Restoration Plan, created by the Ecology Department and Fermi Natural Areas, or FNA, aims to make the Eola Grasslands a diverse and desirable nesting habitat for grassland birds. The hope is for these birds to identify the land as their home, returning for generations. This plan spans a six-year period — subject to changes depending on how the animals and plants respond. FNA’s bird monitors will measure and record these responses. A plan that is fluid and can adapt to animal or plant responses will result in the best natural area possible.

The plan addresses grasshopper sparrows and Henslow’s sparrows, in particular, because creating habitat that appeals to these two species meets the nesting needs of many grassland bird species.

With the data that FNA’s bird monitors are collecting, the knowledge gained from this management plan could be applied all across the state, and perhaps even further.

Northeast Eola Grassland

This 95-acre area consists mostly of grasses with a few sections of wetland that increase diversity. Here, the experiment will consist of rotational prescribed burning that targets about a third of the acreage each year. In doing so, three different densities of habitat will be created to satisfy the nesting needs of multiple grassland bird species.

Which type of grass density will the most grassland birds prefer? Will this area be considered more desirable than the South grassland? These are the questions that FNA’s bird monitors are tackling. Only time, and consistent management, will tell.

Northwest Eola Grassland

This area is 113 acres and is similar to the Northeast Grassland. Here, the experiment will consist of frequent rotational mowing, targeting about half of the acreage per year. The area will be mowed in strips of 150-foot-wide strips next to 150-foot-wide unmowed strips. The first mow will occur before the growing season, then will recur about every three weeks, totaling five or six mows per year.

The hope for this experiment is for the grassland birds to nest in the taller, unmowed areas, and forge in the shorter, mowed areas.

Eola Grassland South

Eola Grassland South is about 209 acres. The northern two-thirds of this area are used as a dog training area, while Fermilab formerly used the southern third as a nursery. For grassland birds, this area is considered desirable, but because it is not actively maintained, it has slowly turned more brush-like over the years. This area will function as the control for the grassland birds the experiment.