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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Breeding Birds of North Dakota


The original, natural populations of breeding birds in North Dakota were represented by unusually interesting and colorful combinations of species. These unique associations, characteristic of the prairie regions on the north-central Interior Plains, undoubtedly had been of regular occurrence for several thousand years, following the latest glacial epoch. During this period, they constituted an integral part of some of the more spectacular and picturesque biotic communities on the North American continent.

Vast expanses of the state were covered with a lush, verdant mantle of pristine grasslands that were dominated by a rich assortment of native grasses and sedges. During the warmer months, the soft, blended beauty of this natural environment was further enhanced by a profusion of brightly colored flowers of many indigenous forbs. Tremendous herds of Bison roamed these prairies, often with scattered smaller bands of Pronghorn Antelope. Other large herbivores, the American Elk, Mule Deer, and White-tailed Deer, were plentiful in or near the isolated tracts of forest or in the vicinity of prairie thickets of fruit-bearing shrubs and small trees. The great abundance of these big-game species assured a bountiful food supply for the nomadic tribes of American Indians and for the larger predators, particularly the numerous, wide-ranging packs of Gray Wolves.

A host of subdominant mammals and birds including herbivorous, omnivorous, and carnivorous forms were representative of these primeval biotas. Although these animals were generally much smaller in stature than the dominant herbivores and major predators, they still exerted an important influence on the bioecology of the region.

The ubiquitous breeding bird populations in this unspoiled realm of nature were composed of many species of diverse ecological affinities. Impressive concentrations of breeding waterfowl and other large, conspicuous marsh or open-water birds occurred throughout the prairie pothole region of the state. On the uplands, raptorial hawks and owls were especially prominent, and prairie grouse were abundant and widely distributed. Many secondary non-passerine species and nearly all resident passerine species, were represented by countless numbers of breeding pairs. These small or medium-sized birds were distributed over a great variety of habitat, including prairie, marsh, brushy thicket, and woodland.

Since the mid-1800's, the breeding bird life in North Dakota has undergone drastic changes. During this period, the environmental impact resulting from the disruptive encroachments by man of white European stock has been overwhelming and, at times, even catastrophic. A combination of activities, including excessive hunting pressure, widespread destruction of natural habitats, and many deleterious land-use practices, have had a pronounced detrimental effect on the species composition of breeding birds and on the magnitude of their populations.

Populations of most species that comprised the original avifaunal elements of this historically romantic prairie region are now greatly depleted. Fortunately, remnants of biotic communities that contain local populations of many of the characteristic species still persist. Even these restricted areas are somewhat atypical, however, owing to the unnatural effects of various land-use practices on habitat conditions and to the complete extirpation of breeding populations of several of the larger, more conspicuous species of birds.

The present environmental situation with respect to the welfare of most wildlife species, including birds, is appalling to say the least. Unfortunately, the prospects for the future are even more bleak. Under the guise of "progressive" economic development, the tragic destruction of the remaining natural habitats in the state is continuing at an unabated rate. Each year, many additional tracts of native prairie are put under the plow, numerous basin wetlands are drained, scattered blocks of upland forest are cut-over and cleared, and stretches of luxuriant bottomland forest are drowned by impounded water behind an ever-increasing number of dams along permanent streams. These productive, dynamic wildlife communities are being rapidly replaced by ever-expanding acreages of monotypic croplands and other artificial habitats that are comparatively sterile insofar as use by breeding birds and other wildlife species is concerned.

The constant attrition of natural habitat seems to be unrecognized or of little concern to many citizens of the state. The environmental outlook of most farmers and businessmen is greatly influenced by profit making incentives and these considerations are further abetted by narrow, short-sighted policies of a few government agencies. As a result, activities other than ventures concerned with monetary gain are frequently considered to be of little consequence. Ironically, there is a strong possibility that the abusive manipulations of natural habitat could eventually have an unfavorable, depressing impact on the overall economy. If the current destructive land-use policies are allowed to continue, North Dakota could readily become one of the most desolate, unattractive areas in the entire country, devoid of the variety of environments that are necessary to support a healthy, thriving society of people.

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