The quantity and quality of northern mixed-grass prairie continues to decline because of conversion to agriculture, invasion of woody and exotic plants, and disruption of important ecological processes that shape grasslands. Declines in grassland bird populations in North Dakota, USA, have coincided with these largely anthropogenic alterations to prairie habitat. In grasslands of north-central and northwestern North Dakota, woody plants have increased due primarily to fire suppression, extirpation of bison (Bos bison), and widescale planting of tree shelter belts. In northern grasslands, effects of woody vegetation on survival of grassland birds are poorly understood, and conclusions are based mainly on studies conducted outside the region. We examined nest survival of clay-colored sparrows (Spizella pallida) and vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus) relative to the distance nests were located from aspen (Populus tremuloides,) woodland edges and relative to other habitat features near the nest. Clay-colored and vesper sparrow nest survival was higher for nests located near woodland edges, nests with greater cover of Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis), and nests more concealed by vegetation. Vesper sparrow nest survival increased as the percent cover of tall shrubs near the nest increased. Based on video-camera data, the 13-lined ground squirrel (Spermophilus tridecemlineatus,) was the most common predator of sparrow eggs and young. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels were more common far from woodland edges than near, and this pattern may, in part, explain clay-colored and vesper sparrow nest survival in relation to woodland edges. In contrast to our results, studies conducted in other grassland systems generally report lower nest survival for grassland birds nesting near trees and shrubs. This disparity in results demonstrates the need to identify specific nest predators and their distributions with respect to important habitat features because these data can be important in explaining-and perhaps predicting-patterns of nest predation.
Additional publication details
Nest survival of clay-colored and vesper sparrows in relation to woodland edge in mixed-grass prairies