Responses of breeding birds in tallgrass prairie to fire and cattle grazing

TitleResponses of breeding birds in tallgrass prairie to fire and cattle grazing
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsPowell, AFLA
JournalJournal of Field Ornithology
Pagination41 -52
Accession NumberKNZ001196

No other group of North American birds has declined as precipitously and over so large an area as has the grassland assemblage. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, the largest extant region of tallgrass prairie, annual spring burning of rangeland has largely replaced traditional regimes and natural patterns with longer intervals between burns. I examined effects of burning and low-intensity cattle grazing on abundances of seven bird species at Konza Prairie Research Natural Area in June 2002 and 2003. Every species was affected by fire, with Upland Sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) more abundant, and six species—Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), Henslow's Sparrow (A. henslowii), Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), and Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii)—either less abundant or absent at sites in the breeding season following a fire. These results demonstrate that annual burning limits the potential of much of the Flint Hills prairie to harbor high breeding densities of many grassland birds. On the other hand, I found a trade-off between immediate and longer-term effects of burning for several grass-dependent species. Grasshopper Sparrows, Henslow's Sparrows, and Eastern Meadowlarks, although more numerous in areas that were not burned the preceding spring, were less abundant at sites burned every 4 yrs than those burned at shorter intervals. In contrast, shrub-dependent Bell's Vireos were more abundant at sites burned every 4 yrs. Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Eastern Meadowlarks were more abundant in grazed areas. Use of alternatives to annual burning could increase habitat heterogeneity by transforming the Flint Hills into a mosaic of regularly, but asynchronously, burned pastures that would better meet the diverse habitat needs of the region's grassland birds.