The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides habitat for grassland birds, but as contracts expire, some CRP fields might be returned to rowcrop production. One alternative to returning CRP fields to rowcrops is to produce switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) for use as a biomass fuel. Because the biomass is harvested during the fall and winter, breeding birds would not be directly affected by mowing the fields bur might be influenced by changes in vegetation structure resulting from the harvest. We evaluated bird abundances and nest success in totally harvested, partially harvested (alternating cut and uncut strips), and nonharvested CRP switchgrass fields in southern Iowa, USA, in 1999 and 2000. Species richness did not differ among harvest treatments. Abundances of most species (16 of 18) were not affected by the harvesting of switchgrass fields, and strip width did not affect bird numbers in strip-harvested fields. Grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) were more abundant in harvested portions of fields, and more sedge wrens (Cistothorus platensis) were recorded in nonharvested areas. The residual vegetation in nonharvested areas provided nest cover for species that begin nesting early in the season (e.g., northern harrier [Circus cyaneus] and ring-necked pheasant [Phasianus colchicus]). Nest success rates of grasshopper sparrows and common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) were similar to those reported by other studies in switchgrass fields and might be sufficient to maintain stable populations. In general, switchgrass biomass fields create breeding habitat for some grassland birds, and a mixture of harvested and nonharvested fields would be more beneficial to grassland birds than totally harvesting or partially harvesting all switchgrass fields.
Additional publication details
Short-term bird response to harvesting switchgrass for biomass in Iowa