Why study grassland birds? 

A Henslow's Sparrow sits on goldenrod

A Henslow's Sparrow sits on goldenrod

Wisconsin Grasslands

We all have a scene that pops into our heads when we think of ‘grassland birds’. Maybe you simply think of the birds themselves. Perhaps you see sunlight glistening on dewy tallgrass prairie, while a Northern Harrier floats a few feet above the grass. Do you hear a morning chorus of Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks punctuated by a quietly whispering Henslow’s Sparrow? Whatever image you conjure, I imagine it warms your heart.

CarolynByers_DO_NOT_USE_WITHOUT_PERMISSION_prairie sunrise.JPG

Grassland birds can fall into two categories: obligate or generalist species. The latter are simply birds that are able to use grassland habitat for nesting, foraging, or loafing around. The former require grasslands during their breeding season, and their fates are inextricably tied to the habitat.

Populations of obligate grassland birds are in steep decline because grasslands themselves are a declining habitat. There is only 1% of tallgrass prairie remaining in North America- a habitat type that used to be quite common in Wisconsin. 

Historically, habitat was lost when Europeans settled the Americas. They used the fertile land to produce necessary crops, and they suppressed the fire that maintains prairie habitat. Grassland birds declines were slow in those days, since they were still able to use historic agricultural fields. Birds could nest in crops like wheat and hay, and crops were generally harvested after nesting was complete. Modern intensification of agricultural practices has made using these surrogate grassland habitats challenging for birds. Herbicides and pesticides as well as more frequent harvests make these fields a more hostile environment. Grassland bird populations have been in a free-fall since the 1950s.

Besides being wonderful in their own right, these birds are an important part of our ecosystem. They provide food for other wildlife, and help control insect populations that could become pest species. The more we know about these birds and their life history traits, the better we can tailor our conservation efforts to each species. 

For more information on grassland bird trends, check out these great resources: 

State of North American Birds: Grasslands (NABCI) 

Working Lands: Grassland Birds- Audubon Society


My research objectives

To determine: 

1) Grassland bird community, nesting activity, and success

2) Effects of patch level vegetation, patch size, and landscape composition on grassland bird community and productivity 

3) Effects of fire on grassland habitat, and the ways these changes affect grassland bird communities and productivity

4) Identify nest predators! 

Data Collection

Click the link below to find out more about our data collection methods. 

Continue to data collection page. 

If you'd rather not get bogged down in the details, here are a few field season photos for your enjoyment:

Interested in all of the details? 

You can find our published papers here: 

Grassland bird density and diversity: coming soon! 

Grassland bird productivity in warm-season grass fields along a gradient of low to high plant diversity (Byers et al. 2017)

 Read my Into the Nest Blog at Madison Audubon