USGS - science for a changing world

Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

  Home About NPWRC Our Science Staff Employment Contacts Common Questions About the Site

Breeding Birds of North Dakota

Prairie Communities


The prairie communities include various types of natural grasslands and scattered prairie woodland thickets. The native prairie grasslands, occupying in 1967 about 26 percent of the state, were second only to croplands in proportional area. Among the major biotic areas, excluding the heavily wooded Turtle Mountain Region, the proportion of prairie grasslands ranged from a low of less than 1 percent on the Agassiz Lake Plain to a high of 55 percent on the Little Missouri Slope. Between these extremes, the proportional grassland area varied as follows: Northeastern Drift Plain, 8 percent; Southern Drift Plain, 9 percent; Northwestern Drift Plain, 12 percent; Missouri Coteau, 25 percent; Coteau Slope, 36 percent; and Missouri Slope, 54 percent. The statewide composition of native prairie from the standpoint of land use was as follows: moderately grazed, 50 percent; heavily grazed, 27 percent; lightly grazed, 11 percent; nonuse, 8 percent; and hayed prairie, 4 percent.

Tall-Grass Prairie

Prior to the arrival of the early white pioneers this community was prevalent throughout the Agassiz Lake Plain Region and also occupied many well-drained lowland areas in the Prairie Pothole Region. On the Agassiz Lake Plain, it represented the climax biotic community, whereas in the Prairie Pothole Region, it probably should be considered as a postclimax. Because of agricultural development, vast acreages of this habitat have been destroyed, and only a few small remnant tracts remain at the present time.

The dominant vegetation is composed of tall grasses including such species as big bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, and prairie dropseed. Midgrasses and other grass-like plants of similar stature are commonly associated with them. These include Kentucky bluegrass, little bluestem, slender wheatgrass, porcupine grass, mat muhly, fescue sedge, and meadow sedge. Many forbs are of regular occurrence including smooth camas, red lily, yellow stargrass, blue-eyed-grass, Canada anemone, prairie cinquefoil, wild strawberry, wild licorice, meadow parsnip, palespike lobelia, roundhead blazing star, tall goldenrod, giant goldenrod, smallflower aster, black-eyed Susan, narrowleaf sunflower, white sage, common dandelion, prairie dandelion, meadow hawksbeard, and rattlesnake-root.

JPG -- Picture of tall-grass prairie.

Plate 1. Tall-grass Prairie. Richland County, August 1974 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Dominant plants on this area include big bluestem, switch grass, Indian grass, and prairie dropseed. Principal breeding birds include the Upland Plover, Bobolink, Western Meadowlark, and Savannah Sparrow.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species:

Eastern Mixed-Grass Prairie

Before the advent of agricultural development, this community was prevalent throughout the Prairie Pothole Region and also occupied many of the well-drained lowland areas in the Southwestern Slope Region. During this early period, it undoubtedly represented the most extensive habitat in North Dakota. From about 1895 to the present time (1972), vast areas of this habitat have been destroyed and replaced by agricultural croplands. However, fairly extensive tracts still occur on the Missouri Coteau and in a few localized areas elsewhere. It represents the climax biotic community in the Prairie Pothole Region but probably should be considered as a postclimax in the Southwestern Slope Region.

The predominant vegetation is composed of a mixture of mid- and short-grasses and other grass-like plants of similar stature. Primary species of these types include prairie junegrass, green needlegrass, needle-and-thread, blue grama, little bluestem, and yellow sedge. The invading exotic species, Kentucky bluegrass, also is prevalent in many areas. Secondary species are represented by western wheatgrass, Canada wild-rye, spike oats, big sandgrass, ticklegrass, porcupine grass, mat muhly, side-oats grama, Leiberg's panicum, needleleaf sedge, and threadleaf sedge. Patches of low shrubs are often quite common, particularly in draws and on east- and north-facing slopes. These are composed chiefly of wolfberry and, locally, by silverberry.

JPG -- Picture of Eastern mixed-grass.

Plate 2. Eastern Mixed-grass Prairie. Stutsman County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Dominant plants on this area include prairie junegrass, green needlegrass, needle-and-thread, blue grama, little bluestem, yellow sedge, and wolfberry. Principal breeding birds include the Ferruginous Hawk (formerly common), Sharp-tailed Grouse, Upland Plover, Sprague's Pipit, Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Savannah Sparrow, Baird's Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Chestnut-collared Longspur.

A great variety of forbs, including many that are quite colorful when flowering, is also characteristic of mixed-grass prairie. The more common species are as follows:

White wild onion                  Ovalleaf milkweed      
Pink wild onion                   Moss phlox             
Bastard toadflax                  Hairy puccoon          
Prairie chickweed                 False gromwell         
White larkspur                    White beardtongue      
Pasque flower                     Slender beardtongue    
Cottonweed                        Prairie painted-cup    
Prairie buttercup                 Owl clover             
Bladderpod                        Northern bedstraw      
Yellow whitlowwort                Harebell               
Western wall-flower               False boneset         
Alumroot                          Narrowleaf blazing star
Early cinquefoil                  Broomweed              
Tall cinquefoil                   Golden aster           
Torch flower                      Haplopappus            
Prairie rose                      Early goldenrod        
Buffalo-bean                      Soft goldenrod         
Slender milkvetch                 Stiff goldenrod        
Missouri milkvetch                White upland aster     
Purple loco                       Smooth fleabane        
Lead plant                        Daisy fleabane         
Indian breadroot                  Mat catsfoot           
Silverleaf                        Perennial ragweed      
Purple prairie-clover             Longhead coneflower    
Wild vetch                        Purple coneflower      
Stiffstem flax                    Stiff sunflower        
White milkwort                    Gaillardia             
Red mallow                        Green sage             
Nuttall's violet                  Upland wormwood        
Small blue violet                 Fringed sage           
Gaura                             Prairie ragwort        
Toothleaf evening primrose        Prairie thistle        
Wild parsley                      Blue wild lettuce      

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species (including well-marked sub-species):

Western Mixed-grass Prairie

This is the prevalent habitat in the Southwestern Slope Region, and, in this area, it represents the climax biotic community. It also occurs on many upper slopes and knobs of the higher morainic hills in the Prairie Pothole Region where it appears to represent a preclimax community. Although very extensive tracts of this prairie habitat have been destroyed and replaced by croplands, about half of the original acreage was still extant in 1967. In many respects, this type of prairie could be considered as an ecotone between the eastern mixed-grass prairie and short-grass prairie.

JPG -- Picture of Western mixed-grass.

Plate 3. Western Mixed-grass prairie. Slope County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Dominant plants on this area include western wheatgrass, needle-and-thread, blue grama, little bluestem, needleleaf sedge, and threadleaf sedge. Principal breeding birds include the Sharp-tailed Grouse, Burrowing Owl (formerly common), Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, Brown-headed Cowbird, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Chestnut-collared Longspur.

The predominant vegetation is composed of short grasses or grass-like plants in association with an open growth of midgrasses. Primary species include western wheatgrass, prairie junegrass, needle-and-thread, blue grama, and needleleaf sedge. Secondary species are spikemoss, six-weeks fescue, plains reedgrass, green needlegrass, plains muhly, buffalo grass, little bluestem, and threadleaf sedge. The more common species of forbs include the following:

White wild onion             Narrowleaf blazing-star
Small erysimum               Broomweed              
Prairie cinquefoil           Gumweed                
Chamaerhodos                 Golden aster           
Narrowleaf milkvetch         Gray goldenrod         
Tufted milkvetch             Soft goldenrod         
Slender loco                 Aromatic aster         
Lewis' wild flax             Longhead coneflower    
Stiffstem flax               Purple coneflower      
White milkwort               Yarrow                 
Red mallow                   Green sage             
Ball cactus                  Upland wormwood        
Moss phlox                   Fringed sage           
Blue beardtongue             Gray ragwort           
Prairie plantain             Skeleton weed                             

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species:

Short-Grass Prairie

This habitat, of local occurrence in the Southwestern Slope Region, is largely restricted to the more elevated portions of the Little Missouri Slope. In this area it is especially characteristic of the upper slopes and summits of dry ridges and buttes. It would appear to represent a preclimax community.

The predominant vegetation is composed of short grasses and sedges in association with a low matted growth of spikemoss. The primary species include spikemoss, blue grama, needleleaf sedge, and thread-leaf sedge. Occasional, scattered plants of buffalo grass and needle-and-thread also occur. The more typical forbs in this type of prairie include sandlily, white wild onion, death camas, buffalo-bean, purple loco, silverleaf, prickly pear, moss phlox, white beardtongue, and fringed sage.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species:

Black Sage Prairie

This community may be described as an xeric type of scrub grassland that occurs in the southern portion of the Little Missouri Slope, chiefly in the western third of Bowman County and western fourth of Slope County. It is largely restricted to dry washes and other sites with comparatively sterile clay soils that have been altered appreciably by water erosion.

It is probable that this community could properly be considered as an ecotone between short-grass prairie and the northern shrub desert. It is dominated by an open growth of sagebrush that is composed either of pure stands of black sage or of mixtures of black sage and silver sage. In the intervening spaces between shrubs, the vegetation is usually composed of prickly pear in association with herbaceous vegetation that is dominated by buffalo grass, blue grama, and needleleaf sedge.

JPG -- Picture of black sage prairie.

Plate 4. Black Sage Prairie. Bowman County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Black sage is the predominant shrub on this area and it is associated with scattered silver sage. Prevalent plants occurring in intervening spaces between shrubs include prickly pear, buffalo grass, blue grama, and needleleaf sedge. Principal breeding birds are represented by the Sage Grouse, Lark Bunting, and Brewer's Sparrow.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneous species:

Prairie Woodland Thickets

Isolated woody thickets are scattered throughout the prairie grasslands of the Prairie Pothole and Southwestern Slope Regions and also occur locally in the Agassiz Lake Plain Region. These communities develop on sites with comparatively moist microclimates, including shallow, well-drained depressions and north- or east-facing slopes of morainic hills, river bluffs, buttes, and badlands. Most of these communities are dominated by a mixture of small trees and tall shrubs including such species as Saskatoon serviceberry, hawthorn, wild plum, choke cherry, and bullberry. These are frequently associated with other woody plants, the species of which are quite variable from one part of the state to another. These include golden currant, red raspberry, smooth rose, western rose, pin cherry, bittersweet, smooth sumac, skunk sumac, poison ivy, silverberry, and wolfberry.

Another type of prairie thicket is represented by scattered small groves of quaking aspen. These are especially conspicuous in the northern third of the Prairie Pothole Region where they are largely restricted to areas of sandy soil. Aspen groves also are common on deltaic sand areas of the Agassiz Lake Plain.

JPG -- Picture of prairie woodland thicket.

Plate 5. Prairie Thicket. Stutsman County, August 1975 (photo by John T. Lokemoen). Predominant woody plants on this are include Saskatoon serviceberry, hawthorne, choke cherry, western rose, and silverberry. Principal breeding birds are represented by the Swainson's Hawk, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Mourning Dove, Black-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Kingbird, Willow Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, American Goldfinch, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Song Sparrow.

Characteristic Breeding Birds

Primary intraneous species: Secondary intraneous species: Extraneousspecies(including well-marked subspecies):
Previous Section -- Agricultural Communities
Return to Contents
Next Section -- Wetland Communities

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo USA.gov logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
URL: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/bbofnd/pcom.htm
Page Contact Information: Webmaster
Page Last Modified: Friday, 01-Feb-2013 18:06:51 EST
Reston, VA [vaww54]