Society diversity

The National Audubon Society’s case for “bird-friendly beef”

By the time herds of male bobolinks arrived in May to survey the fields, the cows were out of the restricted area. Four pairs nested and within weeks eight healthy chicks fledged. Curiously, some of them chose brood sites where cattle were actively grazing.

Two months later, when I arrived on a reporting trip to the Sustainable Agriculture Education Center, it was still breaking news: “Have you heard of bobolinks? everyone asked excitedly.

these ultra-long migrants weren’t just a captivating sight. Wild birds are the most visible and audible indicators of overall ecological health. In North America, the more than 2,000 species of migratory and resident birds serve as a lens through which to study changes in a particular environment, what scientists call a bioindicator.

“For many different types of ecosystems, the components of the bird community reflect very closely what’s happening with the habitat,” Ruth Bennett, a research ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, told me.

Thus, when waterways are polluted by agricultural runoff, waterfowl quickly die. When pesticides are applied to fields, swallows, swifts and other insectivores disappear. In contrast, when chemicals are no longer used, birds tend to return and populations rebound. By monitoring their numbers and diversity, conservationists can then gauge the success of restoration efforts.

With this principle in mind, the National Audubon Society—one of the world’s most reputable environmental nonprofits—is scaling a new eco-certification that takes a surprising approach to assessing land health. . The program proposes to measure the environmental benefits, notoriously difficult to quantify, with a single and simple metric: birds.

This month, Audubon will officially launch its “Bird-Friendly Beef” campaign nationwide, offering its stamp of approval to livestock producers who can prove their methods will bring the birds back. The idea is that land managed with the birds’ needs in mind will improve ecologically at all levels, with winged visitors as a sure sign of success.

It’s a quietly radical decision. Historically, wildlife conservation efforts in the United States have focused on preserving habitat. But Audubon’s new strategy is specifically oriented toward improving the environmental value of working land, implying that “nature” and “agriculture” are not mutually exclusive entities.

Over the past century, the North American prairies, including the Great Plains, have been transformed—some would say destroyed—by agricultural practices that maximize agricultural production, particularly mechanical, chemical, and commodified forms of grain and grain production. of meat.