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Semi-arid grassland bird responses to patch-burn grazing and drought

February 6, 2018

As grassland birds of central North America experience steep population declines with changes in land use, management of remaining tracts becomes increasingly important for population viability. The integrated use of fire and grazing may enhance vegetation heterogeneity and diversity in breeding birds, but the subsequent effects on reproduction are unknown. We examined the influence of patch-burn grazing management in shortgrass steppe in eastern Colorado on habitat use and reproductive success of 3 grassland bird species, horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys), and McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), at several spatial scales during 2011 and 2012. Although no simple direct relationship to patch-burn grazing treatment existed, habitat selection depended on precipitation- and management-induced vegetation conditions and spatial scale. All species selected taller-than-expected vegetation at the nest site, whereas at the territory scale, horned larks and McCown’s longspurs selected areas with low vegetation height and sparse cover of tall plants (taller than the dominant shortgrasses). Buntings nested primarily in unburned grassland under average rainfall. Larks and longspurs shifted activity from patch burns during average precipitation (2011) to unburned pastures during drought (2012). Daily survival rate (DSR) of nests varied with time in season, species, weather, and vegetation structure. Daily survival rate of McCown’s longspur nests did not vary with foliar cover of relatively tall vegetation at the nest under average precipitation but declined with increasing cover during drought. At the 200-m scale, increasing cover of shortgrasses, rather than taller plant species, improved DSR of larks and longspurs. These birds experience tradeoffs in the selection of habitat at different spatial scales: tall structure at nests may reduce visual detection by predators and provide protection from sun, wind, and rain, yet taller structure surrounding territories may host nest predators. Patch-burn grazing management in combination with other strategies that retain taller-structured vegetation may help sustain a diversity of breeding habitats for shortgrass birds under varying weather conditions.

Publication Year 2018
Title Semi-arid grassland bird responses to patch-burn grazing and drought
DOI 10.1002/jwmg.21379
Authors Susan K. Skagen, David J. Augustine, Justin D. Derner
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Wildlife Management
Index ID 70195039
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center