We evaluated the influence of scale on habitat use for three wetland-obligate bird species with divergent life history characteristics and possible scale-dependent criteria for nesting and foraging in South Dakota, USA. A stratified, two-stage cluster sample was used to randomly select survey wetlands within strata defined by region, wetland density, and wetland surface area. We used 18-m (0.1 ha) fixed radius circular-plots to survey birds in 412 semipermanent wetlands during the summers of 1995 and 1996. Variation in habitat use by pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) and yellow-headed blackbirds (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), two sedentary species that rarely exploit resources outside the vicinity of nest wetlands, was explained solely by within-patch variation. Yellow-headed blackbirds were a cosmopolitan species that commonly nested in small wetlands, whereas pied-billed grebes were an area-sensitive species that used larger wetlands regardless of landscape pattern. Area requirements for black terns (Chlidonias niger), a vagile species that typically forages up to 4 km away from the nest wetland, fluctuated in response to landscape structure. Black tern area requirements were small (6.5 ha) in heterogeneous landscapes compared to those in homogeneous landscapes (15.4-32.6 ha). Low wetland density landscapes composed of small wetlands, where few nesting wetlands occurred and potential food sources were spread over large distances, were not widely used by black terns. Landscape-level measurements related to black tern occurrence extended past relationships between wetlands into the surrounding matrix. Black terns were more likely to occur in landscapes where grasslands had not been tilled for agricultural production. Our findings represent empirical evidence that characteristics of entire landscapes, rather than individual patches, must be quantified to assess habitat suitability for wide-ranging species that use resources over large areas.