From the chatter of songbirds in the morning to the sight of a solitary hawk hunting in the evening, birds can play a wonderful role in our golf experiences. They are also a critical part of our ecosystem that is under threat from development, habitat loss and various other challenges. While golf courses are not a large land use in the context of the United States, they still account for approximately 2 million acres nationwide, including some of the last large open spaces in many urban and suburban areas. This means that the potential for supporting a wide variety of bird species on golf courses is significant. With recent research suggesting that the total number of birds in North America has declined by nearly 30% since 1970 – a net population loss approaching 3 billion birds (Rosenberg et al., 2019) – finding ways to make our golf courses more valuable as bird habitat is arguably more important than ever.

Fortunately, many of the most beneficial ways to support birds mesh nicely with ongoing efforts at many courses to reduce resource consumption, improve maintenance efficiency, offer activities beyond golf, and increase engagement with golfers and the surrounding community. Taking the following steps will help you support birds and ecosystem health at your golf course, and possibly improve the bottom line as well.

 

Understanding Your Site

Developing a good understanding of the birds that currently inhabit your site, or are likely to inhabit your site, is an important first step. This information guides planning and points you to actions that will have the most positive impact (Kress 2006, McKinney and Nightingale 2013). A good starting point is visiting websites like eBird that provide up-to-date information about the birds people are seeing in your area. However, the information on website databases may not cover the specific habitats of your golf course. Connecting with local chapters of the National Audubon Society and other birding groups is a great way to obtain more site-specific information. 

Organizing bird walks on your course is another good way to study the bird population and engage an interest that many of your golfers and community members likely already have. According to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 45 million people in the U.S. enjoy bird watching activities. Participating in bird watching and community science events like the National Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count or Christmas Bird Count can also be great ways to learn more about the birds inhabiting your course.

Organizing bird walks at your golf course is a great way to engage with golfers and the community while building knowledge about the birds that are present. (USGA/Fred Vuich)

 

Establishing baseline information about the bird populations at your site will shape the strategies you use to support birds. This information can help identify focus areas on the property, guide planting decisions, and point out seasonal considerations such as migration patterns. Tracking the birds present on your site over time will also help you understand if your efforts to support birds are having a positive impact or whether they need adjustment.

Plant Native Plants

For most golf courses, the easiest and most beneficial step toward supporting bird species is preserving and expanding areas of native plants. Mown turf has limited value to most bird species (Kress 2006) because it doesn’t offer much in the way of food or shelter. However, most golf courses have significant acreage beyond the primary playing areas that is available for enhancing bird habitat. Many golf courses are also decreasing their acreage of maintained turf (GCSAA 2017), so expanding native plantings fits well with current trends.

Native plants, like milkweed, harbor more of the insects and larvae that birds depend on to feed their young.

Native plantings offer a variety of resources for birds including shelter, nesting sites and food sources. While many of us may think of bird-friendly plantings as those that offer edible seeds or berries, perhaps the most important plants are those that support the herbivorous insects and larvae that birds depend upon to feed themselves or their young (Tallamy and Shropshire 2009, Narango et al. 2017). More than 95% of terrestrial bird species rely on insects and larvae to feed their young (Richie 2016). The importance of insects to bird species is a large part of why it is so critical to use native plants. Native plants harbor more insects and larvae than introduced species because the insects evolved in concert with these plants over thousands of years (Tallamy and Shropshire 2009, Burghardt et al. 2010). 

As far as which plants to use, creating variety is key because different bird species favor different types of vegetation for different purposes (Kress 2006, McKinney and Nightingale 2013). Even the height and density of plants influences bird behavior. The most successful native planting plans for supporting birds will include a variety of trees, shrubs, broadleaf plants and grasses. Mimicking the plant communities and physical structure of natural areas on and around your course will produce the best results (Kress, 1998). The National Audubon Society provides a native plants database that helps you select native plants for your area and identifies the bird species those plants are likely to support. Local Audubon chapters can also provide more specific information as needed. Joining Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program is another good way to gather information and implement habitat improvements at your course.

For most golf courses, the easiest and most beneficial step toward supporting bird species is preserving and expanding areas of native plants.

Plan Your Plantings

While creating bird-friendly native areas with a variety of plants may seem to conflict with trends toward reducing trees and understory vegetation at many golf courses, that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Native plants can be incorporated into a golf course landscape in a variety of ways. For example, many golf facilities use vegetation to create buffers around their property. Expanding vegetated buffers and ensuring that they are comprised of native plant species can add valuable bird habitat while improving the effectiveness of the buffer. To provide useful habitat, shrub and tree buffers should be at least 10 feet wide and 150 feet long (Kress 2006). The wider and longer these buffers can be made, the greater number of birds and variety of bird species they can support (Mason et al. 2007).

Replacing mown turf with native grasses is beneficial for birds and helps superintendents focus more resources on primary playing areas.

 

Around the clubhouse and entryway, replacing non-native landscape plants with native species is a positive step. Decreasing the area of mown turf in these areas and replacing it with native plants or grasses can reduce maintenance costs and increase overall habitat value. Defining the borders of native plantings around the clubhouse can still provide a tidy presentation without the same investment in manicuring a large area of turf and ornamental landscape. Changes like these are a win for bird species and allow more maintenance resources to be focused on the golf course.

Closer to play, creating naturalized areas that feature a variety of native grasses, including a mix of warm- and cool-season species, will improve habitat value when compared with mown rough. Locating naturalized areas around water bodies can also provide a buffer that protects water quality. Be aware that many grasses used in “native areas” on golf courses are not actually native to North America, so it is important to research seed blends. It is also important to understand the growth characteristics of all the grass species in a native blend to ensure that extremely tall or dense grasses are only used in areas where they will not drastically impact play.

Carefully located areas of trees, shrubs and groundcovers can also add habitat value to native areas without negatively impacting course conditions or playability. Unfortunately, greater diversity does present management challenges when it comes to weed control because selective herbicides are more difficult to use when more plant materials are present. While native weed species can be highly desirable for birds (Kress 2006), their presence can be an aesthetic hurdle for golfers. The reality is that a uniform grassland free of broadleaf and woody vegetation is not native to the vast majority of areas. Accepting a more natural version of native areas not only improves their value for birds and other species, it also allows for less resources to be spent maintaining areas that are typically intended to be low-maintenance.

Embracing a mix of grasses, trees and shrubs in native areas can increase their value for bird species and reduce maintenance costs. (USGA/Russell Kirk)

 

To have success with native plantings, special attention must be paid to their location. Certain plants will not be appropriate in areas closer to play because of the potential playability impacts. Using the right native plants in the right locations will reduce the risk of golfer complaints while maximizing the potential benefits for birds.

Dead Wood

Dead trees and fallen branches provide nesting sites, food, shelter and a good vantage point for these Ospreys on a Florida golf course.

While many habitat improvement efforts focus on living plants, dead ones can also add significant value for bird species. Standing dead trees – known as “snags” – and downed branches provide shelter, nesting and food resources for birds. Rather than tidying woodland areas on a golf course to a high degree, tolerate some stumps, dead branches and fallen limbs. If tree removal is planned in an area that will be naturalized, leaving behind two or three large logs – i.e., greater than 12 inches in diameter – per acre can add significant habitat value. If dead trees do not pose a threat to safety or property, leaving them standing provides shelter for cavity-nesting birds and an insect food source. In areas closer to play, dead trees can be topped to a safe height and the remnant left behind to decay and provide habitat. Not only will this help birds, it also eliminates the cost of removing or grinding the stump. Drilling appropriately sized holes in a dead tree can also encourage birds to begin taking advantage of the resource. Once you identify your target bird species, a quick online search will provide information about the right cavity size and where it should be located on the tree. Information about the ideal concentration of logs and snags in a given landscape can typically be sourced from state and regional forestry departments, but in general, several large snags and fallen logs – i.e., greater than 12 inches in diameter – per acre is recommended (Northwest Natural Resource Group 2019, Massachusetts Audubon 2014, Penn State Extension 2005).

Along with logs, stumps and snags, simple piles of dead branches can increase the habitat value of a golf course. Brush piles provide places for birds to hide from predators and take shelter from the elements. Brush piles will also harbor insects and other food resources. The vast majority of golf courses have fallen sticks and branches to deal with throughout the year, in addition to branches cut during tree pruning. Rather than transporting all of these branches to a large dump area or chipping them, create brush piles in out-of-play native areas, woodlands and along forest edges to expedite disposal and create valuable habitat. In terms of structure, placing larger branches on the bottom – i.e., those that are 4-6 inches in diameter – and smaller ones above allows birds to easily hide within, but various designs can have value depending on the bird species. In general, brush piles should be about 10 feet across and up to 6 feet tall (Kress 2006, Northwest Natural Resource Group 2019). Brush piles can also harbor snakes and animals that golfers may not want to come in contact with, so it is advisable to locate them well away from primary playing areas. 

Brush piles are great places for birds to hide from predators and take shelter from the elements. (John Dietch/Great Backyard Bird Count)

 

Feeders and Nesting Structures

Installing feeders and nesting structures can be a very beneficial way to support birds on the golf course, but these features require significant attention and maintenance to be successful. The potential habitat benefits are also limited by how many nest boxes and bird feeders can be reasonably installed and maintained. Nesting structures and feeders might have their greatest potential impact as a tool for engagement and education because they provide an opportunity to observe birds up close and allow interested people to become involved with installation and maintenance. When you consider that billions of dollars are spent each year in the U.S. on bird food alone (US Fish and Wildlife 2016), the potential value in engaging people’s interest is clear.

If nesting habitat for desired bird species is limited on your property, nesting structures can be a beneficial addition. Creating the right nest structure and locating it appropriately for the target species is key. Fortunately there are excellent online resources, like NestWatch from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, that help you select and create nesting structures based on your region and habitat type. NestWatch provides a list of bird species that may be present in your area, indicates whether the species is declining, and provides detailed plans for how to construct an appropriate nest. There is also information about where to place the nesting structures and notes about which nests are kid-friendly construction projects. There is lots to know about every type of nest box in order to have success, so invest some time to learn about construction, installation timing, proper location and annual maintenance requirements.

Nesting structures, like these purple martin nests at a New Jersey golf course, can be a valuable asset to birds and allow people to observe them up close.

 

Successful use of bird feeders follows the same basic principles as installing nest boxes. You should identify your target species and utilize a feeder design and food source that is most beneficial. FeederWatch is an online resource from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that can help you select a feeder that is appropriate for the birds you are trying to support. Along with feeder design and food selection, location is critically important to ensure that you are not inadvertently creating a hazard for birds. You should locate bird feeders far enough from shrubs and other cover to prevent ambushes by cats and other predators, but you also want to keep feeders close enough to cover that birds can flee to safety when needed. A distance of about 10-20 feet from cover is a good compromise (FeederWatch, Kress 2006). Window strikes are also a concern when feeders are located near buildings. Surprisingly, feeders that are located very close to windows are less of a hazard because the birds aren’t typically flying with enough speed to injure themselves as they approach and leave the feeder, so locate feeders within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2009). Placing visual cues, like stickers, on windows near feeders can help birds see them as barriers and prevent bird strikes.

Almost all nest structures and bird feeders require maintenance to ensure they don’t become a hazard for the birds you are trying to help.

Almost all nest structures and bird feeders require maintenance to ensure they don’t become a hazard for the birds you are trying to help. Nest boxes must be monitored for the presence of parasitic insects and other pests that may injure the birds or prevent them from using the nests. They should also be cleaned regularly to remove old nests, unhatched eggs and nest parasites. Spring is usually a good time to clean nest structures and prepare them for the coming season (Kress 2006). Feeders should be cleaned thoroughly several times each year with a dilute bleach solution – approximately 10% bleach – and then allowed to dry before putting more food in. This reduces the risk of bacteria or diseases making birds sick. You should also clean around the base of feeders to remove rotting hulls and seeds, both to prevent birds from eating them and to limit the attraction of unwanted pests like rats and squirrels (FeederWatch, Kress 2006). If the regular maintenance required by feeders and nest structures is beyond the capacity or interest level at your facility, it is best to avoid these programs.

Nest boxes and bird feeders require cleaning and maintenance to ensure they don’t become a hazard for the birds you are trying to help. (USGA/John Mummert)

 

Conclusion

Bird species face a variety of challenges, but it is reassuring to know that efforts to support them have been successful. The comeback of the bald eagle and rebounding waterfowl populations are great examples of how conservation efforts can produce dramatically positive results. While bird populations can be very sensitive to environmental issues, they can also recover quickly with efforts to protect and expand suitable habitat. Keeping common birds common and supporting at-risk species are areas where most golf courses can make a positive impact. In the process, your golf course may also conserve resources, engage new and existing golfers and improve the overall golf experience. Now that’s something to crow about.

 

Sources

Burghardt, K., D Tallamy, C. Phillips, and K. Shropshire. Non-native plants reduce abundance, richness, and host specialization in lepidopteran communities. Ecosphere. 1(5): 1-22.

Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. 2017. Land use characteristics and environmental stewardship programs on U.S. golf courses. GCSAA.org.

Kress, S. 2006. The Audubon Society guide to attracting birds. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Mason, J., C. Moorman, G. Hess, and K. Sinclair. 2007. Designing suburban greenways to provide habitat for forest-feeding birds. Landscape and Urban Planning. 80: 153-164.

Massachusetts Audubon. 2014. Managing forests for trees and birds in Massachusetts. MassAudubon.org.

McKinney, R. and M. Nightingale. 2013. A framework for enhancing bird habitat value of urban greenspaces in the Woonasquatucket watershed, Rhode Island, USA. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.

Narango, D., D. Tallamy, P. Marra. 2017. Native plants improve breeding and foraging habitat for an insectivorous bird. Biological Conservation. 213(A): 42-50.

Northwest Natural Resource Group. 2019. Keeping dead wood and creating wildlife habitat piles: Some guidance for forest owners. NNRG.org.

Partners in Flight. 2016. Partners in Flight landbird conservation plan. Partnersinflight.org.

Penn State Extension. 2005. Dead wood for wildlife. Extension.PSU.edu.

Richie, M. 2016. Why native plants are better for birds and people. Audubon.org.

Rosenberg, K., A. Dokter, P. Blancher, J. Sauer, A. Smith, P. Smith, J. Stanton, A. Panjabi, L. Helft, M. Parr, P. Marra. 2019. Decline of the North American avifauna. Science. 366(6461): 120-124.

Tallamy, D., and K. Shropshire. 2009. Ranking lepidopteran use of native versus introduced plants. Conservation Biology. 23(4): 941-947.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2016. National survey of fishing, hunting, and wildlife-associated recreation.

 

Additional Resources

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