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Breeding Birds of North Dakota

Species Accounts


The taxonomic treatment in this report follows the AOU Check-list of North American Birds, fifth edition (1957), and the subsequent thirty-second supplement (1973), except as modified by changes proposed by Mayr and Short (1970). Reference to subspecies is purposely omitted in most cases since the information presented is derived from field observations rather than study of collected specimens. An exception is made for those subspecies that can be identified readily in the field. Three species are represented within the state by breeding populations belonging to distinct subspecies that can be recognized with ease without collected specimens. These sub-species, each treated separately in the text, include Yellow-shafted Flicker Colaptes auratus luteus Bangs and Red-shafted Flicker Colaptes auratus collaris (Vigors), Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula galbula (Linnaeus) and Bullock's Oriole Icterus galbula bullockii (Swainson), and Eastern Rufous-sided Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus erythrophthalmus (Linnaeus) and Spotted Rufous-sided Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus arcticus (Swainson).

A total of 195 species of birds, including 189 native species and 6 introduced, exotic species, have been known to breed in North Dakota1. Observations of nests or dependent young have been recorded for all of these except the Trumpeter Swan, Barred Owl, Whip-poor-will, Poor-will, and Western Wood Pewee. Although definite breeding records are lacking for these five species, there is little reason to doubt their breeding status since territorial males or breeding pairs have been recorded regularly in appropriate habitats throughout the breeding season.

Unfortunately, a noticeable reduction has occurred in the number of native breeding species in the state. Breeding populations of eight species apparently were completely extirpated during the period 1880-1920. These include the Trumpeter Swan, Bald Eagle, Whooping Crane, Sandhill Crane, Mountain Plover, Passenger Pigeon, Whip-poor-will, and Common Raven.2 Five other species have not been recorded as breeding since 1960. These include the White-winged Scoter, Common Merganser, Peregrine Falcon, Barn Owl, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

The generalized taxonomic composition of the native breeding birds is of interest. Of the 189 native species that have been recorded as breeding, 91 species (48.1 percent) represent the order Passeriformes (perching birds). Other major orders include Anseriformes (swans, geese, and ducks) with 21 species (11.1 percent). Charadriiformes (shorebirds, gulls, and terns) with 18 species (9.5 percent), and Falconiformes (vultures, hawks, and falcons) with 15 species (7.9 percent). Six orders of secondary importance are each represented by four to seven species, and these include Podicipediformes (grebes), Ciconiiformes (herons), Galliformes (grouse), Gruiformes (cranes, rails, and coots), Strigiformes (owls), and Piciformes (woodpeckers). Orders of comparatively minor importance, each represented by one to three species, include Gaviiformes (loons), Pelecaniformes (pelicans and cormorants), Columbiformes (doves), Cuculiformes (cuckoos), Caprimulgiformes (goatsuckers), Apodiformes (swifts and hummingbirds), and Coraciiformes (kingfishers).

The six exotic species that breed regularly in North Dakota were established through introduction or invasions of foreign stock. Breeding populations of four of these species, the Ring-necked Pheasant, Gray Partridge, Starling, and House Sparrow, are now quite generally distributed throughout the state. Local wild populations of the Turkey have become established along the Missouri River bottomlands and in the badlands along the Little Missouri River. Feral populations of the Rock Dove (barn pigeon) are of local occurrence in western North Dakota, and semiwild populations frequently are found throughout the state in the vicinity of farmsteads, feed lots, towns, and cities.

The breeding status of 22 other species listed in the species account is considered to be hypothetical. Each of these species has been recorded one or more times on apparent breeding territories or home ranges during the breeding season. It is probable that some of these occasionally nest in the state. These species are Cinnamon Teal, Goshawk, King Rail, Black Rail, American Woodcock, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Saw-whet Owl, Violet-green Swallow, Gray Jay, Mockingbird, Sage Thrasher, Wood Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, Tennessee Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Canada Warbler, Western Tanager, White-winged Crossbill, Lesser Goldfinch, Blue Grosbeak, and Dark-eyed (Slate-colored and White-winged) Junco.

Many records in the text are listed by county, while others are located in relation to the nearest town or city. In Figure 3, a political map of North Dakota is illustrated, which shows the boundaries and names of all counties and the location and name of each town or city that is cited. Topographic features including major streams and lakes, prominent hills or escarpments, and badlands also are frequently mentioned. These are included in the map showing physical features of the state in Figure 1.

The relative abundance of each species during the breeding season is usually indicated for each biotic region or subregion in which it occurs. Terms used to indicate relative abundance are defined as follows:

Abundant: A species, in view of its habits and conspicuousness,
     found in very large numbers. 

Common: A species, in view of its habits and conspicuousness,
     found in large numbers.

Fairly Common: A species, in view of its habits and conspicuousness,
     found in moderate or fair numbers.

Uncommon: A species, in view of its habits and conspicuousness,
     found in rather small numbers.

Rare: A species occurring within its normal breeding range but
     recorded in very small numbers.

Casual: A species occurring slightly beyond its usual breeding
     range and recorded very few times.

Accidental: A species occurring well beyond its usual breeding
     range and recorded only once or twice.
General and specific calendar dates are used to indicate the nesting seasons for the breeding species in North Dakota. In describing the nesting seasons, the prefixes "early", "mid", and "late" are often used in reference to a month. "Early" refers to the period from the 1st through the 10th day of the month; "mid" is used to designate the period from the 11th through the 20th; and "late" indicates the period from the 21st through the last day of the month. The nesting peak represents the approximate period when three-fourths or more of the individuals of a given species are engaged in nesting activities. Egg dates refer to the extreme dates on which nests with viable eggs (not necessarily full clutches) were found. Nestling dates indicate the extreme dates on which nests containing young birds were recorded. Corresponding dates for downy young are used instead of nestling dates in the case of precocial species. The total number of nest records from which the egg-date and nestling-date extremes are derived is indicated for each species. A single nesting record may be included in both the egg count and the nestling count if observed in both stages. Only nest records reported from North Dakota are included.

The breeding habitats and nesting sites of most species are described briefly. It should be remembered that whenever an appraisal of the relative abundance of a species within a given biotic region or subregion is made, consideration is always given to the required habitat of that species. The scientific names of plants used in the descriptions of habitats are taken chiefly from Gray's Manual of Botany (Fernald 1950) and from Stevens (1963) for those species not treated in Gray's Manual. Voucher specimens for all species referred to are located in the herbarium of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, North Dakota. The scientific as well as the common names of all plants referred to are listed in Appenidix A.

Throughout the species account, the authorities for specific records are indicated by literature references or names of observers, and by the initials "RES" for those observations recorded by the author.

Breeding Range Maps

The breeding ranges for most species are depicted on maps. Each symbol on these maps represents a township in which one or more breeding records have been recorded. Closed squares refer to nests or dependent young that were recorded from 1950 through 1972; and open squares refer to nests or dependent young that were recorded prior to 1950. Closed triangles refer to territorial males or pairs that were recorded during the breeding season from 1950 through 1972; and open triangles refer to territorial males or pairs, recorded during the breeding season, prior to 1950. When adjoining townships are represented by closed squares, the squares merge together and form larger blocks, often of irregular shapes. Symbols along the border of the state frequently represent fractional townships or townships that are only partially within North Dakota. All of these symbols are based on records that were obtained in the portions within the state boundaries. A few records obtained in 1973 are referred to in the text but are not included on the maps.


1A recent breeding record of the Osprey brings the total breeding species to 196 including 190 native breeding species.

2More recent records include an active nest of the Bald Eagle in McLean County in 1975 (E. Bry), and a breeding pair with young of the Sandhill Crane in McHenry County in 1973 (Fields et. al., 1974).


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