By Claude Jenkins
Land Stewardship Biologist for the Alabama Wildlife Federation
Throughout the Southeast, certain bird species associated with early
successional habitats have declined to historic lows. From 1980
to 1999, the fall northern bobwhite population declined from nearly
59 million birds to 20 million birds. According to the U.S. Geological
Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey, bobwhite breeding populations
declined at an average rate of 3.8 percent per year from 1982 to
Although these declines have been attributed to a variety of factors
such as coyotes, fire ants, and hawks, the primary cause has been
the effects of landscape level habitat loss and degradation. Declining
population trends are not unique to bobwhites, however. The loss
of early successional habitats has resulted in precipitous declines
in unexploited bird species such as logger-head shrikes, dickcissels,
eastern meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, and eastern king-birds.
Bobwhites are adapted to and require diverse plant communities for
reproductive success and survival: native grasses for nesting, annual
weeds with bare ground and insects for brood rearing, shrub/woody
brush for winter and protective cover, and native annuals for foraging.
Historically, in agricultural landscapes, idle or fallow areas were
common along field edges, fence rows, ditch banks, and field corners.
These idle areas fulfilled most of the essential habitat requirements
of bobwhites, thus bobwhite populations flourished.
Bobwhite populations are no longer an accidental byproduct of agricultural
practices. By necessity, modern agricultural practices strive to
maximize production of food and fiber through advances in technological
capabilities and large-scale production. Consequently, former idle
areas were placed into production. The resultant “clean”
farming practices virtually eliminated habitats for bobwhites and
other grassland dependent bird species.
Conservationists’ concerns with regard to adverse environmental
consequences associated with large-scale, highly specialized, capital-intensive
farming systems have in-creased. Federal, state, and non-governmental
conservation organizations recognized the unintended effects of
intensive farming practices on soil and water quality, and wildlife
habitat. This increase sensitivity to environmental stewardship
is reflected in the evolution of farm policy in recent years. The
most recent example is Conservation Practice 33 (CP33), Habitat
Buffers for Upland Birds, which became effective on October 1, 2004.
CP33 is a novel and unprecedented conservation practice/initiative
intended to provide food and cover for bobwhites and other upland
birds in cropland areas. Administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency
(FSA), the practice is intended to create 250,000 acres of field
border habitat along the edges of eligible cropland in 35 states.
FSA estimates that the essential reproductive habitats created by
the initiative will increase the density of bobwhites by 750,000
birds annually. Because total enrollment is limited to 250,000 acres,
enrollment is aimed at specific geographic regions in each state
that have the greatest potential to restore habitat suitable for
bobwhites. The following table provides acres allocated for CP33
for each state.
Field borders may vary in width from a minimum average width of
30 feet to a maximum average width of 120 feet. Wildlife response
will vary depending upon several factors such as border width, plant
composition (amount and types of plants), plant structure (shape
and size of each type of plant), and frequency of management.
However, wider field borders (30’+) will generally support
a greater diversity and abundance of bird species. Research in Georgia,
Mississippi, and North Carolina has shown that converting as little
as one to five percent of agricultural landscapes to field borders
can increase bobwhite populations by 50 to 100 percent. North Carolina
studies have demonstrated that field borders can increase abundance
of wintering grassland birds by 200 percent.
Field borders can be established by allowing vegetation to succeed
naturally, and/or landowners may choose to plant native, warm season
grasses, legumes, and forbs. Trees and shrubs are acceptable, but
must provide optimal bobwhite habitat, be site suitable, and not
exceed 10 percent coverage of the field borders. Plant materials
must be specified according to an approved conservation plan.
Following establishment, vegeta-tion disturbance practices such
as light disking, prescribe burning, and herbicide ap-plications
must be used to maintain borders in suitable habitat and prevent
woody plant encroachment. The frequency and extent of the above
management practices will largely determine vegetation composition
and structure, thus ultimately determining bird species abundance.
FSA estimates the program will provide $125 million in payments
to participants through the year 2007. The following types of payments
will be offered:
• Signing Incentive Payments of up to $100 per acre;
• Practice Incentive Payments of up to 40 percent of the eligible
• Annual Rental Payments and maintenance costs. Producers
will receive annual rental payments for the length of the contract.
The payment is 120 percent of the rental rate for comparable land,
plus practice maintenance; and
• Cost-share assistance of up to 50 percent of the eligible
reimbursable practice costs.
CP33 indeed provides landowners and producers tremendous incentive
and flexibility to develop a conservation farming system that meets
production goals and enhances wildlife habitat. Eligible landowners
in Alabama interested in CP33 can sign up at local FSA offices at
any time or until 1,600 acres have been enrolled, or December 31,
For more information on CP33, Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds,
visit your local FSA office or see www.fsa.usda.gov.