The landscape of the Great Plains has been greatly altered by human activities in the past century, and several grassland passerines have experienced significant population declines in recent decades. We explore here whether brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds, which are abundant in the Great Plains, has contributed to these declines. We measured the frequency of cowbird parasitism of passerine species in seeded grassland, natural grassland, and cropland in studies conducted in North Dakota during 1981-1993. The proportions of parasitized nests were 25%, 34%, and 39% in seeded grassland, natural grassland, and cropland, respectively. We speculate that much of the variation in parasitism rate among these habitats is related to the local abundance of cowbirds, to nest visibility, and to the presence of suitable perches for female cowbirds. Local abundance of cowbirds may be high in areas with cattle pastures. Nests and nesting behavior are probably more visible to female cowbirds in cropland than in grassland. Female cowbirds may use shrubs as perches while searching for host nests, and shrubs are more common in natural grasslands than in the other habitats we examined. Experimental work on the determinants of cowbird abundance in grasslands is needed.
Additional Publication Details
Cowbird parasitism in grassland and cropland in the northern Great Plains