UW News

May 4, 2020

John Marzluff explores how farming, food production and wildlife can coexist in new book ‘In Search of Meadowlarks’

UW News

Farming and food production can be made more compatible with bird and wildlife conservation, says University of Washington ornithologist John Marzluff in his latest book.

In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land” was published in February by Yale University Press.

“Agriculture and wildlife can coexist,” Marzluff, a professor of environmental and forest sciences, writes, “if farmers are justly rewarded for conservation; if future technological advancements increase food production and reduce food waste; and if consumers cut back on meat consumption.” 

Known also for his studies of the behavior of crows, Marzluff is the author of several books, including “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” (2007) and “Welcome to Subirdia” (2015).

He argues that with human populations predicted to surpass 11 billion by the year 2100, agriculture stands at “crossroads” in its evolution. The new book reflects Marzluff’s study of sustainable food production farms and ranches across North and Central America, including vineyards in California, a Nebraska corn and soybean farm and small, sustainable farms in Costa Rica.

Read a story map article by John Marzluff below.

UW Notebook caught up with Marzluff with a few questions about the new book and his recommendations for sustainable food production that is not harmful to wildlife.

This work reflects a lot of field research, including actually camping in fields. What does it mean to “bird” a field — is it to count all visible birds? Or do you look for other evidence as well?

John Marzluff: Yes, in this case “bird” is a verb! When I bird a farm or ranch I’m mostly listening for birds. It is a thrill when I can get my binoculars or scope on a bird, but hearing a bird sing or call is how most birdwatchers actually record the presence of a particular species. In addition to hearing or seeing a bird I might also record the presence of a nest, but that is a rare find.

You recommend that we waste less, eat less beef and other meat, and “close the yield gap.” What is the yield gap and how can it be reduced?

Farming and food production can be made more compatible with bird and wildlife conservation, says University of Washington ornithologist John Marzluff in his latest book. "In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land" was published in February by Yale University Press.

John Marzluff

J.M.: Yield gaps are the difference in productivity between a field farmed as it is today and the same place farmed with technological advancements that increase productivity. These gaps in what is and what could be harvested from a particular place on earth vary tremendously across the globe. In many parts of the Midwest of the United States or the breadbasket of Europe yield gaps are small, but in some regions of Africa where drought or low soil fertility limit harvest the gaps are large.

Even within a field of say 40 acres, yield gaps can vary as some pockets of soil dry quickly or have low nutrient content. Improving the drought resistance of seeds, planting cover crops and limiting tilling to enhance soil fertility, timing irrigation and the application of fertilizer to the needs of specific plants, fields, or regions, and developing crop varieties that are easier to harvest or more fecund are some of the ways farmers can close their yield gap.

You bring some hope by writing that we can all play a part in “meeting the grand challenge of feeding the world and saving nature.” What might a world look like that has successfully met these challenges? 

J.M.: First, agricultural landscapes would be much more diverse than most are today. Rather than rows of crops running from horizon to horizon, we would see a mix of intensively farmed patches, reserves of native land, and many small and varied farms that intermix crops, livestock, fallow land, and natural features such as ponds, hedge rows, and “weedy” ditches.

The factories that today make pesticides and herbicides will in the future produce natural substitutes. As we shift our diet to one that includes less meat generally, and less grain-fed beef, specifically, we will no longer see feedlots but rather cattle and bison grazing in harmony with prairie wildlife, such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, prairie dogs, and badgers.  By effective lobbying of our policymakers we would see incentives for farmers to grow human food and conserve habitat and the elimination of subsidies for those who grow cattle feed and fuel stocks. As a result, the corn fields of the future will grow varieties we can eat and many grassland and shrubland endangered species would start to recover.

But this is only half of the equation, we must also see a revitalization of farming communities, which will happen more quickly when we purchase foods and goods that provide farmers a decent wage and empower the young and the women who choose to return to the land with the ability to own the land that they work.

While I am hopeful, I am not patient, so we need to do our part to meet this challenge now.

  • Read John Marzluff’s story map article about his book “In Search of Meadowlarks” and sustainable food production.