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Grassland Bird Habitat Management



Area Sensitive Species Vegetation Height
Nesting Management Recommendations
Food Creating Grassland Habitat

Many grassland bird populations throughout the eastern United States as well as the Midwest are declining. These declines have been due to conversion of native grasses to non-native grasses, woody encroachment, changes in disturbance regimes (fire and grazing), and conversion to cropland. Each species of grassland bird requires unique micro-habitat and macro-habitat in order to maintain healthy populations. Grassland birds do best in landscapes that are open with limited forest.


Area Sensitive Species


Many grassland birds are area sensitive. This means that in order to reproduce and survive a pair requires a minimum sized patch of grassland habitat. This minimum size is typical due to these species being sensitive to forest edges, woody fencerows, or individual trees located within the desired habitat grassland patch. Area sensitive birds also require grassland patches that are surrounded by an open landscape of grassland or cropland. Although area sensitive birds may utilize small patches of grassland in forest dominated landscapes these birds often have lower survival and little or no reproductive potential due to increased nest predation.

For area sensitive grassland birds you will need a minimum of 25 acres of grassland surrounded by an open landscape. Larger blocks are necessary for area sensitive species because narrow strips do not provide enough habitat away from woody edges. Larger block greater than 25 acres are preferred with block of 100 to 200 acres being ideal. Some species may require blocks that are 500 acres or more in size for optimum population stability.

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Nesting


Most grassland birds nest on the ground. However, species such as Dickcissel, Red-winged blackbird, and Scissor-tailed flycatcher will nest in forbs or shrub cover. This is why having the right height, amount of residual vegetation, and grass/ forb combination is critical. Each species requires different vegetative structure and composition in order to construct a nest . Managing your grassland for a diversity of plants structure and residual cover will allow each species to find what critical component it needs in your grassland.

Food


Grassland birds eat a wide variety of food items. The majority of grassland birds eat primarily insects, but forb and grass seeds as well as berries are also eaten. Raptors prey on mice, voles, shrews, moles, rabbits, snakes, lizards, and songbirds. Since grassland birds eat a wide variety of food it is best to manage a diverse mix of grasses and forbs in your grassland. Native forbs provide the best source of seed and insects for maintaining grassland bird populations. When designing a grassland for birds make sure that you use a diversity of forbs in your seed mixes. Vegetation height and amount of bare ground is important for adding birds in finding food as many grassland birds forage on the ground for insects.

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Vegetation Height


On existing grasslands vegetation height can be maintained through four main processes prescribed fire, prescribed grazing, strip disking, and strip spraying. For the best results a mix of techniques for maintaining a diversity of vegetation heights and species composition is best. Also see table below for recommendation by species.For additional information see our sections on prescribed fire, prescribed grazing, strip disking, and strip spraying.

Grassland bird preferred vegetation height and preference for grass or forb dominated fields.


Species

Preferred Vegetation Height

Grass Dominant

Forb Dominant

Short

Medium

Tall

Upland Sandpiper
X
X


X


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

X
X


X


Northern Harrier



X
X
X
X
Common Barn Owl

X
X
X
X
X
Short-eared Owl



X


X
X
Horned Lark

X




X


Sedge Wren





X
X
X
Bobolink



X


X
X
Eastern Meadowlark



X


X


Western Meadowlark



X


X


Bachman's Sparrow

X
X


X


Vesper Sparrow

X




X


Savannah Sparrow

X
X


X
X
Grasshopper Sparrow

X




X


Henslow's Sparrow



X
X
X
X
Lark Sparrow

X




X
X
Dickcissel









X

Common Nighthawk

X




X


American Pipit

X


X


Red-winged Blackbird


X
X


X

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Management Recommendations


The following table describes the best management technique, disturbance frequency, and grazing level to maintain desired habitat structure for individual species.



Species
Strip Disking
Prescribed
Fire
Prescribed
Grazing
Disturbance Frequency
Grazing Level
Scissor-tailed Flycatcher


2
1

Graze annually
Burn 2 to 5 years

Moderate to Light
Upland Sandpiper
21Graze annually
Burn 2 to 3 years
Heavy to Moderate
Northern Harrier
3
1
2

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Moderate to Light
Common Barn Owl
2
1
3

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Moderate to Light
Short-eared Owl


2
1

Graze annually
Burn 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Horned Lark


2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Sedge Wren


1
2

Graze annually
Burn 2 to 4 years

Moderate to Light
Bobolink


2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Moderate
Eastern Meadowlark
3
2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Western Meadowlark
3
2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Bachman's Sparrow


1


Burn 1 to 2 years



Vesper Sparrow


2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Savannah Sparrow
3
2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Grasshopper Sparrow
2
1


Burn/disk 2 to 4 years



Henslow's Sparrow
3
1
2

Grazed annual
Burn/disk 3 to 5 years

Moderate to Light
Lark Sparrow


2
1

Graze annually
Burn 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Dickcissel
1
2
3

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Moderate to Light
Common Nighthawk


2
1

Graze annually
Burn/disk 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
American Pipit


1

2

Graze annually
Burn 2 to 4 years

Heavy to Moderate
Red-winged Blackbird
1
2


Burn/disk 2 to 4 years





1 = Primary method for maintaining desired habitat
2 = Secondary method for maintaining desired habitat
3 = Tertiary method for maintaining desired habitat

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Creating Grassland Habitat


Native grasslands provide better habitat than non-native grasses like fescue, orchard grass, or timothy. Although grassland birds will use non-native grasses, having properly managed native grasses will be much better for grassland birds. If you do not have any existing native grasslands on your property, you can easily convert a non-native pasture, hayfield, or crop field. For additional information check out our sections on native grass and forbs for wildlife, native grass and forbs for forage and wildlife, cool season grass for forage and wildlife, and prairie and cedar glade restoration.

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  What to do when

Use the planning calendar below for tips on enhancing your land throughout the year. Click any of the selections below for more details.






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