OVER 50 YEARS of writing about the benefits of no-till, we’ve only done a few articles on the expansion of wildlife populations with no-till. That’s why we were pleased to come across some work by University of Illinois environmental scientists on whether no-till and cover crops provide extra benefits for birds.

Many More Birds

In a research project that compared bird populations, Kelly VanBeek found no-tilled fields had a song-bird density that was three times higher than in tilled fields. She found a total of 12 species of song birds in tilled fields and 16 species in no-tilled fields.

Her research was conducted over 2 years in a dozen no-tilled and 12 tilled fields located in central Illinois. Soybeans were planted between May 5 and June 11.

Nest searches were made weekly in the no-tilled fields and bi-weekly in tilled fields for 3 months between mid-April and mid-July. By walking the fields, workers were able to flush incubating females from the nests.

“As estimated from daily survival rates, nest success was 19% in no-till and 9.4% in tilled fields,” she says. While predation from animals such as coyotes and ground squirrels was the main cause of nest failure, 24% of the failures were caused by farm machinery.

VanBeek says the previous year’s crop residue and greater abundance of weedy plants in no-till fields led to increased nesting, more foraging activity by birds and an increased opportunity for birds to conceal their nests in no-tilled fields.

More Cover, More Birds

Illinois environmental scientist Michael Ward says you can expect a much-improved bird habitat by using both no-till and cover crops,

Ward has found birds don’t like crimson clover, turnips or many other cover crops. “Birds really like cereal rye,” he says. “The earlier you get it planted in the fall, the more growth there is in the spring for wildlife.”

In summary, clean tillage is much less appealing to birds. Another advantage of no-till are the higher bird numbers that can be enjoyed when it comes to hunting pheasants and quail. If you put your marketing hat on, you might parlay that into some agri-tourism dollars, as some of our readers have done.