The climate of the North American Great Plains is highly dynamic, with great year-to-year variability in precipitation and periodic, often extreme, wet and dry cycles (Bragg 1995). Drought is a major force of ecological disturbance on the Great Plains and has played a key role in directing the evolution of the grassland biota of this region (Knopf and Samson 1997). Although grassland birds may differ in their responses to enviromenental variations (Rotenberry and Wiens 1991), climatic variability and concomitant unpredictability of resources strongly influence populations of grassland birds across space and time (Wiens 1974, 1986; Cody 1985). Not surprisingly, breeding bird populations on the Great Plains are highly dynamic, exhibiting considerable annual variation in composition, abundance, and distribution (Johnson and Grier 1988, George et al. 1992, Zimmerman 1992, Igl and Johnson 1997). Recently, interest in grassland birds has increased with the recognition that many species are declining both continentally (Droege and Sauer 1994) and globally (Goriup 1988). Identification of the specific factors associated with grassland bird declines in North America, however, remains largely enigmatic (Herkert 1997), and it is complicated by the considerable annual fluctuations in grassland bird distribution and abundance (Igl and Johnson 1997). Although there is evidence that land-use changes on the breeding grounds may have contributed to grassland bird declines (e.g., Igl and Johnson 1997), there also is an indication that long-term drought conditions may have influenced recent population changes of some breeding birds on the Great Plains (Droege and Sauer 1989, Peterjohn and Sauer 1993, Bethke and Nudds 1995, Igl and Johnson 1997). Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) is a secretive grassland bird that breeds in central and southern Canada and the northcentral United States (Murray 1969). It winters primarily in the southern United States (Peterson 1980, 1990). Like populations of many grassland breeding birds in North America (Fretwell 1986, Igl and Johnson 1997), Le Conte's Sparrow populations exhibit numerical highs and lows depending on local moisture conditions (Peabody 1901, Stewart 1975, Knapton 1979, Zimmer 1979, Madden 1996). This observation, however, is based largely on anecdotal evidence or short-term observations. Long-term studies of Le Conte's Sparrow populations are limited. Le Conte's Sparrow is poorly represented on the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) because of small sample sizes, poor coverage in the northern portion of its breeding range, and the species' furtive behavior (Sauer et al. 1995). Moreover, dramatic fluctuations in Le Conte's Sparrow abundance tend to obscure the species' long-term population trends on the BBS (Sauer et al. 1995). In this paper we examine long-term population changes of Le Conte's Sparrows breeding in perennial grassland fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) on the northern Great Plains. We discuss patterns of population change of Le Conte's Sparrows associated with changes in precipitation and moisture conditions.
Additional publication details
Le Conte's sparrows breeding in Conservation Reserve Program fields: precipitation and patterns of population change