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Nesting Ecology and Nesting Habitat Requirements of Ohio's Grassland-nesting Birds: A Literature Review

Results and Discussion


Western Meadowlark

The breeding range of the western meadowlark expanded east during the 1920s and reached Ohio by 1930. Since the late 1930s, small numbers of western meadowlarks have regularly appeared within northwestern counties. Today, Ohio hosts a small population of western meadowlarks, their distribution being restricted primarily to Lucas, Ottawa, Sandusky, Wood, Henry, Seneca, and Wyandot counties. The statewide population does not exceed 10 males in most years (Peterjohn 1989, Peterjohn and Rice 1991).

Spring migrants usually return to Ohio the last half of March. Most nests are established during May and June and fledged young appear in late June and July. Fall migrants leave Ohio during September and October (Peterjohn 1989).

In Ohio, western meadowlarks occupy the same grassy fields as eastern meadowlarks (Peterjohn 1989) and are most frequently encountered in grassy pastures and hayfields, clover-alfalfa hayfields, grassy fields bordering airport runways, and wet prairies (Peterjohn and Rice 1991). Elsewhere, the species has been reported nesting in idle grasslands (Bent 1958, Owens and Myres 1973, Forde et al. 1984, Higgins et al. 1984, Bock and Bock 1987), CRP grasslands (Lauber 1991; Johnson and Schwartz 1993a,b; Reynolds et al. 1994), native and restored tallgrass prairie (Kendeigh 1941; Bent 1958; Blankespoor 1980; Lowther 1984; Johnson and Temple 1986, 1990; Hartley 1994), mixed-grass prairie (Lanyon 1956a), short mixed-grass prairie (Stipa-Bouteloua) (Maher 1979), grassy river floodplains (Dickinson et al. 1987, Horn et al. 1993), shrubsteppe habitat (Walcheck 1970, Rotenberry and Wiens 1980, Castrale 1983, Larson and Bock 1986, Anderson et al. 1994), reclaimed surface mines (Anderson et al. 1994), roadside rights-of-way (Hergenrader 1962, Basore et al. 1986, Warner 1992), grassed water-ways in rowcrop fields (Basore et al.1986, Bryan and Best 1991), meadows (Dambach and Good 1940), pastures (Owens and Myres 1973, Kantrud and Kologiski 1982, Lowther 1984, Sample 1989), hayfields (Bent 1958, Owens and Myres 1973), cultivated corn and soybean fields (Bryan and Best 1991), no-tillage corn and soybean fields (Wooley et al. 1985, Basore et al. 1986), small grains (Dambach and Good 1940, Hartley 1994), and fencerows (Basore et al. 1986).

Lanyon (1953), Wiens (1969), and Sample (1989) reported that western meadowlarks usually occupied large grassy fields with elevated singing perches (trees, shrubs, fencerows, tall forbs) and noted that they preferred larger, drier, and more upland sites than eastern meadowlarks. Nesting territories were characterized by 74% grass cover, 26% forb cover, 0% bare ground, and a mean herbaceous canopy height of 86 cm (Wiens 1969). Mean vegetative characteristics of habitats occupied by nesting western meadowlarks in Wisconsin were <1% woody cover, 81% herbaceous vegetation cover, 14% litter cover, 5% bare ground, 44-cm maximum vegetation height, and 8-cm vegetation height-density (Sample 1989).

In the Great Basin region of the western United States, Wiens and Rotenberry (1981) reported positive correlations between western meadowlark abundance and percent grass, litter, and herbaceous vegetation cover, litter depth, and maximum vegetation height. They noted a negative relationship between meadowlark abundance and percent bare ground. In the north-central United States, western meadowlark abundance was negatively correlated with percent legume cover Johnson and Schwartz 1993b). In Wisconsin, Sample (1989) found western meadowlark abundance negatively correlated with maximum height and heightdensity of vegetation and positively related to percent cover of prostrate residual vegetation. Lanyon (1956b) and Wiens (1969) noted that western meadowlarks placed their nests on the ground in dense, shallow, loose litter. In New Mexico, western meadowlark nesting territories had higher percent grass cover than was available on the study area as a whole (Larson and Bock 1986). Wiens (1969) noted that forb height was lower within than outside nesting territories.

Sample (1989) reported that western meadowlarks preferred relatively treeless habitats and Wiens (1969) noted that nesting territories rarely included trees. Larson and Bock (1986) reported a negative correlation between western meadowlark abundance and percent woody cover.

Western meadowlarks foraged primarily in low, grassy cover (Wiens 1969). Important nestling foods during May and June were Lepidopteran larvae, beetles, and spiders; grasshoppers became important nestling food during July (Maher 1979).

Lanyon (1956a) stated that the eastern range expansion of western meadowlarks into the north-central United States during the early 1900s coincided with an agricultural shift from small grains to livestock and dairy farming (pastures and hayfields). Subsequent conversion of pastures and hayfields to rowcrops since the 1950s in this region precipitated a decline in western meadowlarks (Applegate and Willms 1987). Since the inception of the CRP, and the shift from rowcrop to undisturbed grassland, western meadowlark populations have experienced local increases throughout the Midwest (Lauber 1991).

Owens and Myres (1973) in Alberta and Kantrud (1981) in North Dakota found that grazing had little affect on western meadowlark nesting density. Several researchers noted that lightly- or moderately-grazed grasslands supported significantly higher nesting densities than heavily-grazed areas (Monson 1941, Reynolds and Trost 1980, Kantrud and Kologiski 1982). Nesting densities were higher in ungrazed (11 nests/ha) than grazed (3 nests/ha) prairie in Canada (Maher 1979). Western meadowlarks nested in a 65-ha tract of restored prairie grazed by 95 head of cattle from 15 April through 1 June in South Dakota without adverse effects (Blankespoor 1980).

In Montana, western meadowlark nesting densities were significantly higher on burned than unburned shrubsteppe 2-3 years post-fire (Bock and Bock 1987). Burned grasslands in South Dakota supported significantly fewer nesting western meadowlarks than unburned grasslands 2 years post-fire (Force et al. 1984). In the Montana study, fire converted a shrubsteppe into a cool-season grassland, improving the quality and quantity of western meadowlark nesting habitat. In the South Dakota study, fire significantly increased percent bare ground, thus decreasing nesting cover, and significantly reduced insect and seed abundance compared to unburned areas. Within 2 years, vegetative structure and insect biomass returned to pre-burn levels, as did western meadowlark nesting density (Force et al. 1984).

Herkert et al. (1993) classified western meadowlarks as moderately sensitive to habitat fragmentation and noted that this species reached 50% incidence on grasslands > or equal to 5 ha. In Minnesota, western meadowlarks were significantly more likely to nest in large (130-486 ha) than small (16-32 ha) grassland fragments (Johnson and Temple 1986, 1990).


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