Pennsylvania CREP Benefits All Grassland Birds

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This dickcissel found both haven and home in the restored native grasslands of another Pennsylvania CREP meadow.

PF on the Landscape in Pennsylvannia

Story and photo by Stefan Karkuff, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist II

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) was established in Pennsylvania in 2000 to protect water and soil resources while also providing upland wildlife habitat.

Thousands of Pennsylvania landowners have voluntarily converted marginal cropland and pastureland into grassland and riparian forest habitat for wildlife. Through a partnership with USDA NRCS and the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pheasants Forever hosts a team of 7 Farm Bill biologists that work with landowners and producers to implement CREP and other Farm Bill programs across 22 Pennsylvania counties, primarily located within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

More than just gamebirds and animals, several species of grassland-nesting birds benefit from the presence of CREP grasslands, including field sparrows and the brightly colored eastern meadowlark.

CREP lands are paying great dividends for Pennsylvania’s declining grassland bird species. I now see grasshopper sparrows in cool season grass fields in Cumberland and Franklin Counties. Bobolinks nest in at least three CREP fields in Franklin County. Last summer, dickcissels (whose range is normally restricted to the Midwest) turned up all over central Pennsylvania, searching for nesting sites that had not been affected by drought; CREP served them well.

Another group of birds that benefit from CREP fields are birds of prey. Hawks and owls use their highly-tuned vision and hearing in these grasslands to capture mice, voles, rabbits and even grasshoppers. Red-tailed hawks, American kestrels (our smallest falcon species) and five of Pennsylvania’s eight owl species, rely on grasslands for nesting or hunting.

Last summer I visited a young native grass field enrolled in CREP and found a hen ring-necked pheasant moving her young down the hill and away from me. Floral displays of Queen-Anne’s lace and Maximillian sunflowers attracted several species of butterflies, including monarchs. Abundant insects attracted bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows and a male dickcissel. As I crested a hill in the middle of the field, a doe and fawn fed along a wooded edge.

Individually these species were a joy to watch. But it was their collective presence that indicated the success and value of this newly established grassland.

This story originally appeared in the 2022 Spring Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!