From “A Wing and a Prayer:” How cattle ranches are key to protecting birds

Hilary Swain holds one of the country’s top jobs in scientific conservation. She’s director of the Archbold Biological Station with 40 researchers and staff who watch over the birds, plants, mammals and reptiles across Florida’s rich natural landscape.

Hilary Swain listens for birdsongs on the Buck Island Ranch.

But she gets most excited, and her voice raises a full notch, when she starts talking about her other job: She operates the Buck Island Ranch that runs some 3,000 head of cattle as a way to explore how agriculture can best coexist with nature. “I love it because, here, I feel like I’m making a real difference,’’ she says.

Swain is one of the most intriguing figures in our new book, “A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save our Vanishing Birds.’’ As copies hit stores and online outlets, we’re featuring snapshots of favorite characters to give readers on Flying Lessons a sense of the book.

What Swain likes best about her job leading Archbold is how she sees the big picture in the midst of all the scientific projects focused like microscopes on the details. She’s the one who thinks more broadly about how the studies of birds, plants and trees, as well as the analysis of Buck Island’s water, air and soil, fit into the wider work of preserving the environment.

We came away from hours of interviews, including a tour of the ranch aboard a giant swamp buggy, struck by her views of how the keys to protecting wildlife are different from what most of us assume. For decades, she says, much of the focus on conservation has been on setting aside land for birds and other wildlife and relying on government agencies to watch over the habitat. But these traditional tools have only limited reach, she says.

“A conservation policy that just protects public lands will never succeed,’’ she told us, “because it doesn’t have the connectivity between islands of public lands.’’

Swain outside her office at the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, Florida. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal.

What can link those lands together are all the acres of farms and ranches that spread between public preserves and parks, cities and suburb. That’s what makes the work on the Buck Island Ranch so important in her thinking. If ranches are able to operate in ways that keep the environment healthy, birds and wildlife will stand a much better chance.

The Buck Island Ranch, located smack in the middle of Florida just north of Lake Okeechobee, measures everything from water quality to soil conditions to the biodiversity across its 10,500 acres. It then shares its findings to help the state’s thousands of cattle ranchers. “How can we have sustainable agricultural without diminishing natural resources?’’ Swain asks. “What are the flows of nutrients? What are the flows of carbon?’’

These are concepts that have meaning beyond cattle ranches. Private property owners of all kinds, from businesses to individuals keeping up their backyards, can play the same kind of thoughtful role. We heard this point time and again in our travels. Hilary Swain’s Buck Island Ranch is a good model for what the rest of us should be thinking about when it comes to land, birds, water and good stewardship.

Swain takes us on a tour of the ranch in an eight-foot-high swamp buggy that lets you see far and wide across its 10,500 acres. It’s a place loaded with birds and other wildlife, showing the impact of a healthy environment.

The evidence of how well this works isn’t hard to find on Buck Island. Herons, egrets, eagles and sparrows are everywhere, coexisting with the cattle, sharing the canals with turtles and alligators. The ranch attracts 177 different bird species, 90 of which breed in the fields and waterways.

“A Wing and a Prayer” has an afterward listing dozens of ways people can help birds. You can also find a summary on our Flying Lesson’s page: “Help Save Birds.”

We hope you’ll read our book: It’s available now in bookstores, and here’s a link to where you can find it online.

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