April 2016

Vol. 44, No. 2

The Bobolink Project 2016

Jonathan L. Atwood

Bobolink. Photograph © Shawn P. Carey.

In February 2015, Dr. Allan Strong of the University of Vermont introduced to Bird Observer readers an innovative approach to conservation of grassland birds on private farms (Strong 2015). In his article “How Much is a Bobolink Worth?” Dr. Strong outlined the basic concept and structure of The Bobolink Project, and he summarized work on the project that he had done in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Swallow of the University of Connecticut. In brief, the project matches conservation-minded donors with conservation-minded farmers to protect nesting Bobolinks and other grassland birds. The Bobolink Project will continue in 2016, and we ask you to help make the project succeed by enrolling as a farmer or becoming a conservation donor.

There are many hay farmers in New England who are willing to delay their harvest schedule for the sake of nesting birds such as Bobolinks, but to do so costs them money. Late season hay is less valuable commercially than early season hay. By providing financial support, The Bobolink Project allows participating farmers to manage their fields for grassland birds by delaying their harvesting schedules. This mechanism buys the time needed for grassland birds to successfully nest on working farms. The Bobolink Project collects conservation donations and provides a way for farmers to submit bids to enroll their farms. Then, through a reverse auction process, the project selects which farms to support so that the amount of land that can be protected is maximized given the amount of conservation donations that have been received.

The Bobolink Project is a proven and successful model for grassland bird conservation. As summarized by Allan Strong, “In 2013, The Bobolink Project raised about $32,000, which led to payments to seven landowners for bird-friendly management on 200 acres … In 2014, we raised about the same amount and ... were able to support bird-friendly management on 340 acres.” Furthermore, in 2015, even more farmers were interested in participating, and approximately $50,000 of conservation donations allowed protection of 549 acres of suitable grassland bird habitat during June to early August.

However, Strong concluded his article by noting that:

The Bobolink Project has been successful in large part because it is supported by a [federal] grant [that covered administrative and marketing costs] . . . without grant funding, this approach is probably not sustainable in the long term without someone who is head-over-heels in love with Bobolinks . . . . For 2015, we’ve got just enough money left in the grant to run the project for one more season (Strong 2015).

That is, The Bobolink Project was expected to close up shop in 2016 because the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant to Stephen Swallow had drawn to a close.

As we considered this situation at Mass Audubon, we were convinced that The Bobolink Project was simply too good an idea to allow it to die. With our partners at Vermont Audubon and Connecticut Audubon, we joined forces to become those people Allan Strong asked for—the ones who are head-over-heels in love with Bobolinks. True, some administrative changes would be required to allow the program to become a permanent conservation initiative, without dependence on uncertain grant support from either the federal government or nonprofit foundations. After a series of conversations and meetings with Drs. Swallow and Strong, as well as with representatives of Audubon Vermont and Audubon Connecticut, we developed the new version of The Bobolink Project which is online at

What has changed? First, administration of The Bobolink Project and its website has shifted from Stephen Swallow and the University of Connecticut to Mass Audubon and our collaborators, Audubon Vermont and Audubon Connecticut. Drs. Swallow and Strong, however, are still fully involved in the program. Second, donations that cannot be passed to participating farms in one year will be set aside and held for use in the following year, and up to 15% of donations will be used to cover administrative and marketing costs connected to the program. Third, the geographic scope of The Bobolink Project will expand beyond its previous focus in the Champlain Valley of Vermont to potentially include farms in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Farms in Massachusetts outside this region also will be considered.

This effort can only succeed with your support—the more money we raise, the more Bobolinks we will protect. Please tell your friends, farmers, or potential donors about The Bobolink Project, and ask them to tell their friends too. If you are a farmer interested in being paid for delaying your hay harvest, please go to the website by April 22 and make a confidential bid to enroll your field into The Bobolink Project for 2016. If you are a donor, we also need to receive your contribution by that same date.

If protection of nesting Bobolinks were an easy problem, we would have solved it by now. The reality is that conservation on working lands is the key to the success of this work. To ask farmers to delay their harvests, we need to “rent” their working lands to make up for their lost income. Help us continue to make The Bobolink Project a win-win situation, for both birds and farms, by joining as a donor or a farmer. We need you.


  • Strong, A.M. 2015. How Much is a Bobolink Worth? Bird Observer 43(1): 15-20.

Jon Atwood is a Bird Conservation Fellow, concentrating on grassland bird conservation, at Mass Audubon in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He has been a practicing ornithologist and conservation biologist for 30 years, specializing in integrating behavioral studies of rare and endangered bird species with habitat conservation planning. While working at Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences during the early 1990’s, he collaborated in the analysis of the first 30 years of Manomet’s landbird banding effort, spearheaded federal protection of the California Gnatcatcher under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, led a long-term study of factors affecting Least Tern colony site selection, and contributed to early studies of Bicknell’s Thrush. From 1998–2011 he directed the Conservation Biology Program at Antioch University, New England; taught classes in Ornithology, Ecological Research Design, and GIS; and mentored over 70 graduate students working on various wildlife studies. During 2011–2013 he worked as Science Director at Biodiversity Research Institute in southern Maine.

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