A U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation practice designed to increase the population of northern bobwhite and other grassland birds appears to be working in Mississippi and elsewhere.

CP33 Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds are native grass buffers along row crop field margins that provide food and shelter for birds.

Agricultural producers can establish 30- to 120- feet wide areas around part of or the entire field margin.

Since the program’s inception in 2004, producers have added the buffers to more than 228,000 acres in 25 states. The goal for the program is enrollment of 350,000 acres.

“One of the unique things about CP33 is that it is the first farm bill conservation practice with a wildlife monitoring requirement,” said Wes Burger, Mississippi State University professor of wildlife ecology and management. “States that were allocated CP33 acreage have to evaluate the effectiveness of CP33 buffers on bobwhite and upland bird populations.”

MSU’s Forest and Wildlife Research Center has coordinated bird monitoring for the states participating in the program. The results show that buffers increase bobwhite and songbird populations.

“The CP33 monitoring program affords a rare opportunity to evaluate populations of grassland birds on a geographically large scale,” Burger said. ”We have found that the establishment of CP33 upland habitat buffers in agricultural landscapes provides essential habitat and increases populations of bobwhite and several priority songbird species almost immediately.”

While increasing habitat for wildlife is the goal of the program, farmers also receive numerous incentives for enrolling their marginal cropland in the conservation practice.

Clay County, Miss., producer Jimmy Bryan participates in the program and found the benefits far outweigh the cost.

“We get fair compensation to establish the program and rental payments. We get erosion control, and we get habitat for birds,” Bryan said. ”We are also building what we want, to pass on to our children and grandchildren; a natural ecosystem that works.”

The program is a boon for participants, who receive a signup incentive, reimbursement of 90 percent of establishment and maintenance costs, and annual rental payments. While producers must periodically manage the buffers, turning productive land into habitat for wildlife is a true benefit.

Producers also must consider about the potential effects of the program on crop production.

“In a three-year study, we saw no increase in infield weed pressure and saw potential benefits in controlling pest insects because the native grass buffers may support beneficial insect predators,” Burger said.

To help monitor the progress of the practice, MSU has launched a website that illustrates bobwhite and songbird response from 2006 through 2009.

The site is updated regularly with current information about the practice, the number of acres by state enrolled in CP33, and the results of bird monitoring.