With their spectacular songs and colors, grassland birds enliven the vast Great Plains. Forty-two bird species in North America depend on grasslands for breeding; as a group these species are more imperiled than any other on the continent. Several bird species adapted to grasslands that were grazed historically by tens of millions of bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorn. Nine species (Mountain Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Ferruginous Hawk, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared longspurs, Lark Bunting, Baird’s and Cassin’s sparrows, and Sprague’s Pipit) are endemic, or unique, to the northern Great Plains. These 42 grassland bird species have adapted to breeding in vast treeless grasslands – nearly all nest on the ground and their best defense against predators is a “sea of grass” in which to hide nests and raise their young.
Grassland habitats on birds’ breeding and wintering grounds are highly altered and degraded. Most are fragmented into areas too small for birds and lack the primary forces that historically maintained grasslands: bison, prairie dogs, and fire. Further, many grassland habitats have been degraded due to mis-management of cattle grazing.
WCS is conserving birds on the hooves of the ecological recovery of bison. Because bison largely created these grasslands, we are involved in bison management to conserve grassland birds.
- We are monitoring bird populations and bird-bison habitat associations in the northern Great Plains.
- By identifying grassland features that benefit birds, we can fine-tune grassland management to provide more suitable habitat for each species.
- Because of differences in grass height and density preferences, we will try to coordinate when, where, and how grasslands are grazed and/or burned.
- We are assisting land managers with learning how to best use bison to manage for wildlife.
- On landscapes without bison, we are working with ranchers and Federal land managers to create grassland bird habitat through cattle grazing and fire management.