Effects of prescribed burns and bison (Bos bison)grazing on breeding bird abundances in tallgrass prairie

TitleEffects of prescribed burns and bison (Bos bison)grazing on breeding bird abundances in tallgrass prairie
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2006
AuthorsPowell, AFLA
Pagination183 -197
Accession NumberKNZ001047

Grassland birds have declined more than any other avian assemblage in North America, with nearly every species showing negative population trends. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, the largest remnant of the tallgrass prairie biome, annual spring burning of rangeland has recently replaced burning every 2–3 years. I examined effects of different burning and bison (Bos bison) grazing regimes on June abundances of seven bird species using a 23-year data set from the Konza Prairie Biological Station. Fire significantly affected the abundances of six of the seven species. Effects varied among species but, notably, four grass-dependent species—Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), Henslow’s Sparrow (A. henslowii), Dickcissel (Spiza americana), and Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)— and the shrub-dependent Bell’s Vireo (Vireo bellii)—were least abundant or absent at sites in the breeding season immediately following burning. Upland Sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) were most abundant at sites in the season following burning, whereas Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) exhibited no significant response. Bison grazing increased abundance of Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow, nearly eliminated Henslow’s Sparrow, and (in combination with recent fire) lowered the abundance of Dickcissel. Although fire and grazing are natural forces that maintain tallgrass prairie, their action was, until recently, intermittent and patchy, providing grassland birds with a variety of levels of disturbance. If the vast Flint Hills prairie is to serve as a grassland bird stronghold, the region-wide practice of annual burning with intensive grazing must be replaced with alternatives that restore heterogeneity to the landscape.