State of the Birds: Grassland Birds Are Not Looking Good

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Published on March 23rd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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The U.S. State of the Birds Report analyzes bird populations by habitat types — and the habitat that most jumps out at me as of great concern is grasslands. The grassland bird indicator in the report clearly shows that these species are doing consistently worse than those in other habitat types.

Grasslands also have a relatively high proportion of birds considered of “conservation concern,” which includes those on the federal endangered species list, on the Watch List, or the Fish and Wildlife Service’s birds of concern list.

So what’s going on?

First, let’s examine the bird species involved.  Those of greatest concern are the ones which use grasslands exclusively and whose entire ranges are contained within the North American grasslands.  These include Greater Prairie-Chicken, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Mountain Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Sprague’s Pipit, Baird’s Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, McCown’s Longspur, Eastern Meadowlark, and Western Meadowlark.  Although eagerly sought after by birders, many of these species aren’t conspicuous, colorful, or familiar to most of the general public.

But these species all share the general characteristic of breeding in the northern grasslands of North America (generally, the United States and Canada) and wintering in the southern grasslands (generally, United States and Mexico). Almost all these species have declining (or at best barely stable) population trends for the 40 years covered by the report.

Second, let’s talk habitat. Many of our native grasslands are long gone, with the losses being greatest in the eastern, wetter tallgrass prairie, and least in the western, drier shortgrass prairie. Analyses by The Nature Conservancy and other groups repeatedly show that grasslands are the most underrepresented habitat type in protected areas across the world, including right here in the United States.

Even the large areas of grasslands that still remain have been degraded by human activities such as fence and road construction, and repeated grazing has led to a homogenization of grasslands, with a loss of both highly disturbed and undisturbed areas.

Third, these are just plain difficult species to conserve. Many of the species I mentioned above live in highly variable environments, where climate changes dramatically from year to year. These species have evolved to respond to this variability by moving in space and time.

While this behavior worked for the birds for millenia, it proves difficult for the scientists (who depend on counts based in fixed locations) and the conservationists, who like to apply management prescriptions in the same place. This combination makes it exceedingly difficult to conduct the research needed to determine what needs to be done.  If we do figure this out, then it’s really hard to apply it to species which move widely across big areas.

So what can be done?  While the situation appears grim, efforts are underway to address the problems of grasslands.  Numerous organizations — including the Conservancy — are making grassland conservation a priority nationally, regionally and internationally.

Examples of areas in which the Conservancy has protected grassland include Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Oklahoma; Conata Basin, South Dakota; and Milnesand Prairie Preserve, New Mexico. The presence of so many grassland birds on lists of species of conservation concern is elevating the profile of these species, leading to more investment in research and conservation.

The Conservancy has led the way in this effort through the development of its Prairie Wings project, a multinational effort to stem the declines of these iconic birds of the North American grasslands. You can support these efforts by learning about grassland birds, visiting a grassland ecosystem and advocating for increased grassland habitat protection.

(Image: Western meadowlark. Credit: Doug Greenberg through a Creative Commons license.)

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