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Breeding Birds of North Dakota

Biogeographical Distribution of Breeding Birds

In North Dakota, four biotic regions are recognized. These are referred to as the Agassiz Lake Plain Region, the Prairie Pothole Region, the Southwestern Slope Region, and the Turtle Mountain Region (Fig. 2). Each region is distinguished primarily on the basis of major proportional differences in prominence of floristic and faunistic groups of species. On the basis of secondary differences in biotic relationships and on differences in prevalence of habitats, the Prairie Pothole Region and the Southwestern Slope Region are subdivided into biotic subregions.

GIF -- Biotic areas of North Dakota.

Figure 2. Biotic areas of North Dakota.

Birds of the Agassiz Lake Plain Region

This region (Fig. 2) contains the western portion of the Agassiz Lake Plain that extends into eastern North Dakota. It covers about 10.0 percent of the total state area. The topography in general may be described as typical, low-relief, lake plain flatlands. Locally, shallow valleys occur along the Red River and its tributaries, and rolling dunes have developed on deltaic sand areas that are located along the western margin of the region near the Pembina, Tongue, Goose, Sheyenne, and Wild Rice rivers.

Because of the high fertility of the soils, agricultural development has modified nearly all of the arable acreage within the region. Only a few small remnant tracts of the original climax tall-grass prairie remain. Large expanses of cropland are prevalent throughout. The principal crops are small grains (chiefly wheat), corn, potatoes, sugar beets, soy beans, and sunflowers. The monotony of these extensive, drab, monotypic habitats is relieved by occasional narrow bands of flood-plain forest along some of the larger streams. Brushy open woodlands that adjoin tracts of a distinct, sparsely vegetated type of prairie also occur on the limited areas of deltaic sand. In addition, wooded habitats established by man--including tree-claims, shelterbelts, and landscaped yards--are found in the vicinity of farmsteads, towns, and city suburbs. Wetland habitats in this region include streams and associated oxbows, and a few widely scattered ponds and marshes.

The breeding birds are dominated by upland, pandemic species of the North-central Avifauna in association with many species of the Eastern Avifauna. In addition, a few species of the Northern Avifauna and two species of the Western Avifauna (Western Kingbird and Brewer's Blackbird) are of regular occurrence.

The characteristic breeding birds may be categorized according to relative abundance and include 6 primary species that are often common or abundant, 29 secondary species that are usually fairly common, and 78 tertiary, or minor, species that are uncommon or rare. The primary and secondary species are listed as follows:

Primary Species

Mourning Dove
Horned Lark
Common Crow
Western Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Secondary Species
Red-tailed Hawk                Starling
American Kestrel               Warbling Vireo
Killdeer                       Yellow Warbler
Black-billed Cuckoo            Common Yellowthroat
Great Horned Owl               House Sparrow
Yellow-shafted Flicker         Bobolink
Eastern Kingbird               Red-winged Blackbird
Western Kingbird               Baltimore Oriole
Barn Swallow                   American Goldfinch
Blue Jay                       Dickcissel (local)
House Wren                     Savannah Sparrow
Brown Thrasher                 Vesper Sparrow
Gray Catbird                   Clay-colored Sparrow
American Robin                 Song Sparrow
Cedar Waxwing

Birds of the Prairie Pothole Region

The Prairie Pothole Region (Fig. 2) covers about half (50.9 percent) of the total state area. This heavily glaciated area contains a considerable variety of glacial land forms, and innumerable shallow basin wetlands occur throughout. It encompasses two physiographic regions known as the Drift Plain and Missouri Coteau.

Throughout the Drift Plain, gently rolling ground moraine is the prevalent glacial land form. Locally, fairly extensive areas of lake plain occur including the Souris Lake Plain in Bottineau and McHenry Counties, the Devils-Cando Lake Plain in Ramsey and Towner Counties, and the Dakota Lake Plain in Dickey and Sargent Counties. In addition, other land forms including dead-ice moraine, end moraine, glacial outwash, deltaic sand, kame, and esker are of local importance. In certain areas, deep glacial meltwater channels, often called coulees, are prominent along some of the major streams and their tributaries.

On the Missouri Coteau, dead-ice moraine, which is characterized by knob-and-kettle topography, is generally prevalent. Large areas of glacial outwash also are present, particularly in Kidder and McLean Counties. End moraines are prominent in certain portions of the Missouri Coteau, and small areas of ground moraine, lake plain, deltaic sand, kames, and eskers occur. The natural basin wetlands on the Missouri Coteau average somewhat larger and deeper than those on the Drift Plain and contain surface water that tends to be of greater permanence. On glacial outwash areas, the wetlands are often quite distinctive, being much more saline than those found elsewhere.

Four distinct biotic subregions that may be recognized within the Prairie Pothole Region are based on proportional variations in area of glacial land forms and differences in environmental conditions and biogeographical relationships. These are referred to as the Northeastern, Southern, and Northwestern Drift Plains, and Missouri Coteau (Fig. 2).

The climax biotic community of the Prairie Pothole Region is represented by the eastern mixed-grass prairie. Fairly extensive tracts of this type of native prairie, often heavily grazed, still exist, particularly on areas of end moraine, dead-ice moraine, glacial outwash, and on kames and eskers. Locally, isolated tracts of tall-grass prairie are present in well-drained lowlands near pond margins, along intermittent streams, and on north- or east-facing slopes of hills. Small disjunct areas of western mixed-grass prairie also occur on the summits and upper slopes of the higher morainic hills.

On ground moraine and on many tracts of other glacial land forms, the natural grasslands have been largely destroyed by man and replaced by very extensive acreages of croplands. The principal crops in the region are wheat, oats, barley, and flax; while fairly large corn fields and alfalfa or sweetclover hayfields may be found locally.

Habitats of major importance in the region also include a considerable variety of shallow basin wetlands (Stewart and Kantrud 1971). Other habitats of local importance are fluviatile and man-made wetlands, isolated small tracts of deciduous forest, and residential areas of man. Fluviatile wetlands include permanent and intermittent streams and their associated oxbows; man-made wetlands are represented by stock ponds, dugouts, large shallow-stream impoundments, reservoirs, and sewage lagoons. Deciduous forests include narrow bands of floodplain forest along the Sheyenne, James, and Mouse rivers and their tributaries; local upland forests on river bluffs and high moraines and along margins of permanent lakes; scattered thickets of small trees or aspen groves on the prairie; and tree-claims, shelterbelts, and other wooded habitats established by man. The partially wooded residential areas of man are commonly represented by farmsteads, towns, and city suburbs.

The breeding birds are composed preponderantly of upland and wetland species that are characteristic of the North-central Avifauna, including endemic and pandemic species. Species typical of the Eastern Avifauna are fairly prominent along permanent streams and in other wooded habitats on the Northeastern and Southern Drift Plains but occur more sparingly elsewhere. Small local populations of a few species that belong to the Western and Northern Avifaunas also occur in this region.

The characteristic breeding birds of this region include 16 primary species, 52 secondary species, and 79 tertiary, or minor, species. The primary and secondary species are listed as follows:

Primary Species

Gadwall                  Horned Lark
Mallard                  Western Meadowlark
Pintail                  Red-winged Blackbird
Blue-winged Teal         Yellow-headed Blackbird
Northern Shoveler        Brown-headed Cowbird
American Coot            Savannah Sparrow
Black Tern               Clay-colored Sparrow
Mourning Dove            Chestnut-collared Longspur
Secondary Species
Eared Grebe              Yellow-shafted Flicker
Pied-billed Grebe        Eastern Kingbird
American Bittern         Western Kingbird
Black-crowned Night      Willow Flycatcher
 Heron                   Bank Swallow
American Wigeon          Barn Swallow
American Green-winged    Cliff Swallow
 Teal                    Common Crow
Canvasback               House Wren
Redhead                  Long-billed Marsh Wren
Ruddy Duck               Brown Thrasher
Swainson's Hawk          Gray Catbird
Red-tailed Hawk          American Robin
Marsh Hawk               Sprague's Pipit
Sharp-tailed Grouse      Cedar Waxwing
Ring-necked Pheasant     Yellow Warbler
Gray Partridge           Common Yellowthroat
Sora                     House Sparrow
Killdeer                 Bobolink
Upland Plover            Common Grackle
Willet                   American Goldfinch
Marbled Godwit           Lark Bunting
American Avocet          Baird's Sparrow
Wilson's Phalarope       Grasshopper Sparrow
Franklin's Gull          Vesper Sparrow
Ring-billed Gull         Song Sparrow
Black-billed Cuckoo	 Great Horned Owl

Birds of the Southwestern Slope Region

This region covers about 38.5 percent of the total state area. Its' topographic features and biogeographical relationships show much more definite western affinities than are indicated by the other major biotic regions. In contrast to the adjoining Prairie Pothole Region, various portions of the Southwestern Slope Region are either unglaciated only slightly to moderately affected by past glaciation. The region also is distinctive in that the surface drainage systems are well integrated throughout. On the basis of noticeable variations in topography and on secondary differences in biogeographical relationships, the Southwestern Slope Region has been subdivided into three subregions that are designated as the Coteau Slope, Missouri Slope, and Little Missouri Slope (Fig. 2).

The gently sloping terrain of the Coteau Slope has been slightly to moderately affected by past glaciation. Sheet moraine and shallow ground moraine deposits are the principal glacial land forms throughout. Small areas of dead-ice moraine, end moraine, outwash plain and lake plain also occur. Drift-free, water-eroded exposures of sedimentary bedrock are quite common along bluff escarpments of stream valleys. Relief is generally low to medium except near such exposures, where typical badland topography is apparent. Other formations occur along the Missouri River Trench where dissected valley walls and broad bottomland alluvial deposits have developed. Locally, a few scattered, shallow, natural basin wetlands are present on the gently sloping uplands.

The Missouri Slope is largely unaffected by glaciation, being entirely unglaciated in the western portion, while in the eastern half only a few small scattered remnants of sheet moraine are indicative of past glaciation. The broad, rolling uplands of this subregion are interrupted by bedrock valleys along many of the larger streams and by a few scattered high buttes. Locally, along the Cannonball and Heart rivers, small areas of badlands also have developed.

Within the Little Missouri Slope the wide, rugged badlands along the Little Missouri River and its tributaries represent the most prominent topographic feature. These picturesque formations are adjoined by broad, rolling uplands that contain many conspicuous high buttes. In the southern portion of the subregion, particularly in western Bowman County, other formations caused by shallow, surface erosion closely resemble the bleak "scablands" of eastern Washington.

The climax biotic community in the Southwestern Slope Region is represented by the western mixed-grass prairie association. This community could be described as an ecotone between the eastern mixed-grass prairie and typical short-grass prairie. Large expanses, usually grazed by livestock, are still present, although the total acreage is steadily being reduced in many areas because of the encroachment and expansion of vast areas of cropland. In this region, wheat is the principal agricultural crop.

Other more localized grassland communities also are fairly important in this region. In many lowland areas that occur in draws or near intermittent streams, typical eastern mixed-grass prairie is the prevalent type. Sizable tracts of short-grass prairie often are present on the more elevated uplands, especially within the Little Missouri Slope. In the southern portion of the Little Missouri Slope, an xerophytic grassland community, referred to as "black sage prairie", also is quite common.

A "badlands community complex" that may be described as a mosaic mixture of grassland, brushland, and sparsely vegetated eroded slopes is especially characteristic of all badland areas and often is quite extensive. Other natural habitats of local importance include thickets of small trees and shrubs in upland prairie draws, bands of floodplain forest along the larger streams, and scattered small tracts of western coniferous forest that are largely restricted to the southern half of the Little Missouri badlands. Certain wooded or partially wooded habitats created by man also have an appreciable influence on wildlife. These include shelterbelts, farmsteads, and residential areas in towns and cities. Wetland habitats, of limited importance in this region, include fluviatile wetlands, stock ponds, dugouts, and reservoirs.

In general, the breeding birds are dominated by upland species of the North-central Avifauna in association with many species of the Western Avifauna. Species characteristic of the Eastern Avifauna are fairly prominent locally, particularly in woodland habitats along permanent streams. Also, a few species of the Northern Avifauna are of rare occurrence in this region.

The characteristic breeding birds include 8 primary species, 28 secondary species, and 93 tertiary species. The primary and secondary species are listed as follows:

Primary Species

Sharp-tailed Grouse
Mourning Dove
Horned Lark
Western Meadowlark
Brown-headed Cowbird
Lark Bunting
Grasshopper Sparrow
Chestnut-collared Longspur
Secondary Species
(including well-marked subspecies)
Mallard                            American Robin
Pintail                            Loggerhead Shrike (local)
Marsh Hawk                         Yellow Warbler
American Kestrel (local)           House Sparrow
Ring-necked Pheasant               Red-winged Blackbird
Gray Partridge                     American Goldfinch
Killdeer                           Dickcissel (local)
Common Nighthawk                   Lazuli Bunting (local)
Yellow-shafted Flicker (local)     Spotted Rufous-sided
Eastern Kingbird                    Towhee
Barn Swallow                       Vesper Sparrow
Cliff Swallow                      Lark Sparrow
Black-billed Magpie                Clay-colored Sparrow
House Wren                         Field Sparrow
Brown Thrasher

Birds of the Turtle Mountain Region

This small, unique region (Fig. 2) covers only about 390 square miles (portion within North Dakota) and comprises about 0.6 percent of the total state area. From a geological standpoint, the Turtle Mountain area is a Tertiary bedrock high that has been capped through glacial action by dead-ice moraine. Typical knob-and-kettle topography is prevalent throughout; and, as a result, surface drainage systems are poorly integrated.

The prevailing biotic community on undisturbed soils is a type of northern deciduous forest that is usually dominated by quaking aspen. Other species of deciduous trees that are commonly associated with quaking aspen include balsam poplar, paper birch, bur oak, and green ash. It is probable that this forest type does not represent a true climax community, but is instead a subclimax community that has been maintained because of occasional, severe forest fires. This theory is supported by the fact that this type of forest closely resembles fire subclimax communities in the boreal forest region toward the north.

Fairly large tracts of forest have been cleared by farmers, and these areas are now devoted to intensive agriculture. Many of the forested areas that still remain have been cutover or burned; and, consequently, various successional brush stages are often prevalent.

Natural basin wetlands are especially numerous in this region and include many fairly deep permanent ponds and lakes as well as large numbers that may be classified as temporary, seasonal, or semipermanent. Swamps that are dominated by shrubs or trees also occur frequently. Other habitats of local significance include farmsteads and residential resort areas on some of the larger fishing lakes.

The predominant breeding birds may be represented as a mixture of species that typify the North-central and Eastern Avifaunas. A fairly large population of Northern Avifaunal species is of regular occurrence, and very limited numbers of five species of the Western Avifauna (Turkey Vulture, Western Kingbird, Black-billed Magpie, Mountain Bluebird, and Brewer's Blackbird) are present.

The characteristic breeding birds of this region include 19 primary species, 54 secondary species, and 60 tertiary species. The primary and secondary species are listed as follows:

Primary Species
(including well-marked subspecies)

Mallard                      Veery
Blue-winged Teal             Red-eyed Vireo
Broad-winged Hawk            Yellow Warbler
Red-tailed Hawk              American Redstart
Ruffed Grouse                Red-winged Blackbird
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker     Brown-headed Cowbird
Yellow-shafted Flicker       Baltimore Oriole
Least Flycatcher             Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Common Crow                  Clay-colored Sparrow
American Robin
Secondary Species
(including well-marked subspecies)
Common Loon                  Ruby-throated
Red-necked Grebe              Hummingbird
Horned Grebe                 Hairy Woodpecker
Eared Grebe                  Eastern Kingbird
Pied-billed Grebe            Willow Flycatcher
Double-crested Cormorant     Tree Swallow
American Bittern             Purple Martin
American Wigeon              Barn Swallow
American Green-winged        Black-capped Chickadee
 Teal                        House Wren
Northern Shoveler            Long-billed Marsh Wren
Canvasback                   Short-billed Marsh Wren
Redhead                      Brown Thrasher
Ring-necked Duck             Gray Catbird
Ruddy Duck                   Cedar Waxwing
Cooper's Hawk                Warbling Vireo
Marsh Hawk                   Northern Waterthrush
Sora                         Common Yellowthroat
American Coot                Mourning Warbler
Killdeer                     Bobolink
Spotted Sandpiper            Western Meadowlark
Wilson's Phalarope           Yellow-headed Blackbird
Black Tern                   Common Grackle
Mourning Dove                American Goldfinch
Black-billed Cuckoo          Savannah Sparrow
Great Horned Owl             Vesper Sparrow
Common Nighthawk             Chipping Sparrow
Belted Kingfisher            Song Sparrow

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