The Effects of Management Practices on Grassland Birds—An Introduction to North American Grasslands and the Practices Used to Manage Grasslands and Grassland Birds

Professional Paper 1842-A
By:  and 



The Great Plains of North America is defined as the land mass that encompasses the entire central portion of the North American continent that, at the time of European settlement, was an unbroken expanse of primarily herbaceous vegetation. The Great Plains extend from central Saskatchewan and Alberta to central Mexico and from Indiana to the Rocky Mountains. The expanses of herbaceous vegetation are often referred to as native prairie or native grasslands. Native grasslands share the characteristics of a general uniformity in vegetation structure, dominance by grasses and forbs, a near absence of trees and shrubs, annual precipitation ranging from 25 to 100 centimeters, extreme intra-annual fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, and a flat to rolling topography over which fires can spread. To the west of the Great Plains lie the sagebrush communities of the Great Basin, which extend from British Columbia and Saskatchewan to northern Arizona and New Mexico and from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges to western South Dakota. Sagebrush communities share similar characteristics to native grasslands, but their location east of the Rocky Mountains creates a more moderating influence from prevailing westerly winds that affect timing of peak precipitation and growth form of dominant vegetation. Native grasslands and sagebrush communities harbor a diverse array of grassland, wetland, and woodland plant and animal communities that are uniquely adapted to the natural forces of the Great Plains and Great Basin, namely the interactive forces of climate, fire, and grazing. The arrival of European settlers to North America brought profound change to native grassland and sagebrush communities, including the establishment of permanent towns and cities, the proliferation of cropland-based agricultural systems, and the suppression of wildfires. The near extirpation of bison by the 1860s paved the way for dramatic changes in the dominant grazers and a shift in the disturbance patterns that historically influenced vegetation structure. The greatest threat to native grasslands and sagebrush communities in modern times is their loss due to conversion to rowcrop agriculture and to urbanization. Concomitant with habitat loss is a precipitous decline in populations of bird species that evolved with, and are uniquely adapted to, the native grassland and sagebrush habitats. Avian population trends are linked strongly to agricultural land use. Besides outright loss of suitable breeding habitat, agricultural practices affect birds through factors such as pesticide exposure, habitat fragmentation, shifts in predator community composition, and occurrence of brood parasites. Bird populations face other stressors, such as loss of habitat to and behavioral avoidance of urbanized areas, roads, and infrastructure associated with energy production.

Despite the many anthropogenic changes to North American grassland and sagebrush communities, some bird species are adaptable and opportunistic in their habitat selection and now utilize one or more human-created habitats. Human-created habitats include pastures, hayfields, agricultural terraces, crop buffer strips, field borders, grassed waterways, fencerows, road rights-of-way, airports, reclaimed coal mines, and planted wildlife cover. Fields of seeded grasslands enrolled in Federal long-term set-aside programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States and the Permanent Cover Program in Canada, provide important nesting habitat for grassland bird species. The array of habitats used by birds makes habitat and avian management a complex undertaking, and the scale (for example, local, regional, international) at which management actions can be implemented are such that a universal approach to managing grasslands for the conservation of the entire suite of bird species does not exist. Experienced land managers recognize that it is impossible to manage for all bird species simultaneously, and thus, prioritization is necessary towards those habitats or bird species that the manager or management agency ranks highest for a specific region or management unit. The primary tools available for management are burning, grazing, mowing, herbicide application, and idling, but before choosing a particular practice, a manager will want to consider issues of seasonality, intensity, and frequency.

Despite the thousands of studies that are cited in this compendium, much remains unknown about the effects of management practices on bird species. The series of species accounts in this compendium review the current state of knowledge regarding management of grassland and sagebrush bird species and summarize information on the effects of management practices on individual species. The accounts do not give definitive statements on the effects of management practices for any particular species, primarily because there are very few replicated studies in which identical management practices have been applied in the same geographical area with consistent results, which are elements necessary to provide concrete recommendations for the management of a particular species in a particular area. Documentation of the effects of management treatments on individual species through statistically sound methods that incorporate multiple years and locations will further scientists’ and land managers’ knowledge far more than 1–2-year studies that are limited in scope as well as time, but studies of that scope and breadth are rare.

Suggested Citation

Shaffer, J.A., and DeLong, J.P., 2019, The effects of management practices on grassland birds—An introduction to North American grasslands and the practices used to manage grasslands and grassland birds (ver. 1.1, March 2022), chap. A of Johnson, D.H., Igl, L.D., Shaffer, J.A., and DeLong, J.P., eds., The effects of management practices on grassland birds: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1842, 63 p.,

ISSN: 2330-7102 (online)

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • North American Grassland and Wetland Habitats
  • North American Grassland and Wetland Habitats after European Settlement
  • North American Sagebrush Habitats Before and After European Settlement
  • Grassland Birds
  • Maintaining and Managing Grasslands for Grassland Birds
  • Final Thoughts
  • Summary
  • References
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title The effects of management practices on grassland birds — An introduction to North American grasslands and the practices used to manage grasslands and grassland birds
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1842
Chapter A
DOI 10.3133/pp1842A
Edition Version 1.0: July 26, 2019; Version 1.1: March 31, 2022
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Description v, 63 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Larger Work Title The effects of management practices on grassland birds (Professional Paper 1842)
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details