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State of the Birds Report

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Grasslands

America’s Heartland is Home to Our Nation’s Fastest Declining Birds

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Consider This:

  • Grassland birds are a vital part of North American landscapes. Forty-eight species nest in U.S. grasslands, including ducks, grouse, hawks, and songbirds.

  • Grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining birds in North America; 48% are of conservation concern and 55% are showing significant declines.

  • Only about 2% of the tallgrass prairie that existed in the early 1800s still remains. Although birds may settle in pastures and haylands, frequent haying, burning, and overgrazing can create “ecological traps” where birds try to nest but fail to raise their young.

  • Farmland conservation programs provide the best hope for birds and other wildlife. Agricultural practices can become more compatible with birds, and land can be managed inexpensively for birds with funding from conservation programs.

The State of Grassland Birds

Of 46 grassland-breeding birds, 48% are species of conservation concern, including 4 with populations that are federally endangered. Eight of twelve sparrow species are listed as of conservation concern. Of the 42 grassland species with sufficient monitoring data, 23 are declining significantly.

The grassland birds indicator, based on data for 24 of 25 obligate species, dropped by nearly 40% from the baseline value, with a slight recovery evident in the last five years.

 

Farm conservation
programs provide millions
of acres of protected grasslands
that are essential for the birds
in a landscape where little native prairie remains.

 

 

 

 

Grassland Bird Indicator

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Birds in Trouble

Federally listed as endangered: (Northern) Aplomado Falcon, (Attwater’s) Greater Prairie-Chicken, (Masked) Northern Bobwhite, (Florida) Grasshopper Sparrow.

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Western Meadowlark
by Donald Metzner
  • Some of the American landscape’s most iconic birds are showing steep declines. Eastern and Western meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Short-eared Owls, and Northern Bobwhites have declined by 38–77% since 1968.

  • Six species that breed in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada and that winter in Mexico’s Chihuahuan grasslands are showing steep declines of 68–91%: Mountain Plover, Sprague’s Pipit, Lark Bunting, Baird’s Sparrow, Chestnut-collared Longspur, and McCown’s Longspur.

  • Lesser and Greater prairie-chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, and Northern Pintail—all popular game birds—have declined from historic levels because of loss and fragmentation of grasslands. Lesser Prairie-Chicken is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

 

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Native grasslands once stretched across the United States from Canada to Mexico, and east from the Rocky Mountains as far as Ohio. More than 95% of the tallgrass prairie has been converted to agriculture and other uses. Short- and mid-grass prairies continue to be converted to agriculture. Photo by Judd Patterson

 


Major Threats


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Greater Prairie-Chicken by Gerrit Vyn
Agriculture

Grassland birds have declined because of the intensification of agriculture, including larger fields with fewer grassy edges, native weeds, and insects, as well as the spread of row crops into drier regions.
 
Pastures cannot support many birds if overgrazed, burned too frequently, or burned at the beginning of the nesting season or the end of the grass-growing season.
 
Grasslands in public lands and parks are often mowed too frequently and kept too short to provide bird habitat. Open areas are frequently allowed to revert to forest instead of being managed as grassland.


Energy and Climate Change

High commodity prices and demand for biofuels contribute to reduced acreage for farm conservation programs, which may reverse the recent improvement in grassland bird populations.

Wind turbines, if improperly sited, can fragment grasslands and disrupt nesting activity of game birds such as Lesser Prairie-Chickens.

Global warming is expected to increase drought conditions in grassland regions, leading to lower productivity and reduced food supply for birds.

Solutions

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Bobolink by Gerrit Vyn

Farm conservation programs remain our best tool for restoring and maintaining grasslands for birds, especially in areas of row-crop agriculture and across the short-grass prairie.

Haying, grazing, mowing, and burning can be conducted in ways that are compatible with birds, usually at very small cost to the producer. These costs can be compensated by conservation programs that provide other benefits as well, such as erosion control.

Wetland conservation programs should continue to include adjacent grasslands because such areas are valuable for both grassland and wetland birds.

Many national, state, and local parks could be managed to benefit grassland birds, and new acquisitions from willing landowners should be explored. Management should include a balance of disturbance to eliminate woody vegetation while allowing a healthy tall grassland.
 

Beyond Our Borders

More than half of grassland obligate species depend on Canadian prairie habitats, as well as those in the central United States. Chihuahuan Desert grasslands in Mexico host a wide variety of U.S.-breeding birds in winter, but more than a million acres have been converted to agriculture in the past five years. Ranchlands are often overgrazed, causing desertification.

Migrants such as Bobolink, Upland and Buff-breasted sandpipers, American Golden-Plover, and Swainson’s Hawk fly to South America where grasslands are being converted to agricultural production.


Reasons for Hope

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Henslow's Sparrow by
Greg Lavaty

After recent, alarming declines in some grassland specialists, such as Henslow’s Sparrow, increases have resulted from the Conservation Reserve Program and other programs that have restored wildlife habitat. Healthy populations of these birds will require maintaining or increasing acreages and conservation practices.

Birds that use wet grass and grass adjacent to wetlands are doing better than average, perhaps because these species have been the focus the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, conservation easements, and other initiatives.

 

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