The National Audubon Society estimates that 20 common songbird species in the northeastern United States have declined 67 percent since 1967.This drastic decline in the songbird population is due to multiple factors, including the loss of grassland habitat to urban and suburban expansion and the growth of industrialized farming, and the silent slaughter of songbirds by domestic and stray cats.

Recent estimates suggest that the nation’s 80 million feral and 84 million domestic cats are responsible for killing 2.4 billion birds annually in the lower 48 states.

What can be done to save the songbirds? First, everyone should keep their pet cats indoors and stop feeding the strays. Second, let's find ways to restore some of the grassland habitat favored by songbirds.

To address that issue of grassland habitat loss, Merryspring Nature Center is restoring native grass species to a test plot on its 66-acre property in Camden and Rockport. The purpose of the testplot is to better understand how to provide a diverse native grass habitat for declining grassland bird species, such as meadowlarks and bobolinks, as well as a variety of other organisms, such as small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

Prior to European settlement, New England was predominantly forested. Grasslands were restricted to river flood-plains and other wetlands. By the early 1800s, as Europeans cleared forests for farming, grasslands became more widespread in the region. Ground-nesting bird species, such as savannah sparrows, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks that depend on grassland habitats, increased in numbers as farming activities expanded. In the late 1800s, when farming in New England started to decline, abandoned farmland reverted to forests or was replaced by housing and commercial development.

In 2012, Merryspring — in cooperation with the Knox-Lincoln Soil & Water Conservation District and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service — began researching ways to enhance the existing fields on its property as wildlife habitat. A test plot, in a former sheep pasture, was designated for study. The initial assessment of the plot concluded that the best way to eliminate years of built-up thatch and bedstraw was to implement a program of mowing in combination with the addition of corrective soil amendments and the introduction of a native grass species that is hardy, fast-growing and easy to monitor.

The initial phase of this project was completed in 2013. This summer the test plot will continue to be mowed, fertilized, and monitored to evaluate the success of establishing a native grass habitat. All mowing will be scheduled outside the primary bird-nesting season and will utilize standard wildlife conservation mowing practices. Once native grasses are established, it is expected that they will be largely self-sustaining, only requiring mowing once a year to prevent the growth of woody plants.

This project fits well with Merryspring’s mission to practice and teach principles of ecology, conservation and horticulture, and to provide a natural landscape for year-round public access and enjoyment. The Nature Center is open to the public year-round and features mixed hardwood and conifer forests, an arboretum, open meadows, four miles of trails, a vernal pool, and cultivated gardens. To further its educational mission, Merryspring sponsors year-round educational programs, classes, and workshops.

To support the grassland habitat restoration or other programs at Merryspring, please contact the Merryspring office at 236-2239 or for information about becoming a member or making a contribution.