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Managing Habitat for Grassland Birds
A Guide for Wisconsin

Guidelines and Recommendations for Habitat Management

There he sits; his whole being says it's your next mow to absent yourself from his domain. The county records may allege that you own this pasture, but the plover airily rules out such trivial legalities... The upland plover fits easily into the agricultural country-side. He follows the black-and-white buffalo, which now pasture his prairies, and finds them an acceptable substitute for brown ones.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County
Almanac and Sketches Here and
(Leopold 1949)

Graphic: Head of Coneflower

To effectively manage grassland bird habitats in Wisconsin we should know as much as possible about habitat requirements for individual species and communities as well as the factors that influence habitat selection and the ability of populations to sustain themselves.

Each grassland bird species has a particular range of habitat conditions to which it is well suited (Wiens 1969, Sample 1989). Because grassland bird habitat requirements are diverse, management designed to benefit one or a few species will not adequately accommodate the needs of all other species. Effective management produces a diverse spectrum of habitats across the state and takes into account amount of habitat, habitat size and shape, habitat distribution, surrounding land use, woody cover and edge issues, habitat structure, disturbance patterns, and the impacts of land management practices. The following sections provide guidelines and recommendations for all of these topics.

Amount of Habitat

We estimate that a total of roughly 3 million acres of potentially suitable agricultural grassland habitat now exists in the state, excluding roadsides. This figure undoubtedly varies from year to year, as it includes an annual average of approximately 620,000 acres of lightly to moderately grazed pasture (one-third of the total pasture acreage in the state), 630,000 acres of small grains, 940,000 acres of old fields, fallow fields, unharvested cover crops, and idle cover crops (U.S. Department of Commerce 1994), 200,000 acres of late-cut hay (cut after early July—mostly grass hay), and approximately 620,000 acres of grassland in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Since we do not know much about the quality of this habitat for birds (i.e., what proportion of fields are of adequate size and shape, how much of the surrounding habitat is suitable for birds), we conservatively estimate that roughly one-half of this total acreage of agricultural habitat, or 1.5 million acres, is currently suitable—and potentially high quality—habitat for grassland birds.

In addition to this agricultural habitat, a recent inquiry to land managers in Wisconsin indicates that we currently have approximately 120,000 acres of permanent, publicly owned and leased grassland habitat in blocks of 100 acres or greater in the state (D. Sample, unpublished data). The amount of grassland in blocks smaller than 100 acres is unknown but may equal or exceed another 120,000 acres, which would bring the total amount of permanent, non-agricultural grassland in the state to 240,000 acres. As with agricultural lands, the acreage that is high-quality for grassland birds may be less than this total.

By combining the information above, the total amount of potential agricultural and permanent habitat for grassland birds in Wisconsin is conservatively estimated to be approximately 1.7 million acres. We suggest, based on professional judgement, maintaining these suitable agricultural and permanent grassland habitats along with an additional 250,000 to 750,000 acres of managed grassland bird habitat in permanent cover. These additional acres should fit the recommendations for grassland habitat established in this guidebook and would include improvements to and expansions on current public properties managed as grasslands (such as DNR Wildlife Areas and State Natural Areas), some additional land acquisition and leases, and significant amounts of privately owned grasslands—such as those with permanent conservation easements.

As a general guideline, additional habitat managed for grassland birds should be distributed throughout the state as follows: Southwestern Upland 25%, Southeastern Ridges and Lowlands 20%, Central Plains 15%, Lake Michigan Shoreland 10%, and Northern Highland/Lake Superior Lowland 30%.

Habitat Size and Shape

Most of the agricultural and grassland landscapes in Wisconsin are highly fragmented, characterized by a patchwork of fields, woodlots, hedgerows, farmsteads, and other habitats and land uses. Large open expanses of grasslands are the exception and not the rule. Because of the fragmented nature of these landscapes, habitat size becomes a management issue for grassland birds.

There are a number of grassland species that require large tracts of habitat; these are the area-sensitive species. Species requiring areas more than 250 acres—or in some cases even 500 acres—in size throughout their breeding ranges include greater prairie-chicken, sharp-tailed grouse, northern harrier, possibly upland sandpiper, and barn owl. Our observations indicate that yellow rail, Wilson's phalarope, short-eared owl, and Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow are also restricted to large sites in Wisconsin. Other research in Wisconsin indicates that Brewer's blackbird is area-sensitive as well (Niemuth 1995). Additional species described as area-sensitive in other midwestern and eastern states are sedge wren, vesper, savannah, grasshopper, and Henslow's sparrow, bobolink, eastern meadowlark, and western meadowlark (Samson 1980, Johnson and Temple 1986, Bollinger and Gavin 1992, Herkert 1994, Vickery et al. 1994). However, in Wisconsin we found all these species in a wide range of field sizes. Area requirements of species may vary geographically (Herkert et al. 1996), and methods used to determine habitat size have differed among studies.

The area required for a healthy, viable grassland bird population is not well known, but it is surely larger than the field size required for a particular grassland bird species to select and occupy a site, which is the focus of most research on minimum area requirements. In one of the few population viability analyses for a grassland bird species, Temple (1992) estimated that an isolated population of sharp-tailed grouse in Wisconsin would require a patch of suitable habitat at least 10,000 acres in size. While this species occurs on much smaller sites in the state, those populations may not be viable. Therefore, minimum area requirements can not be used alone to determine adequate habitat size for a viable population.

Grassland bird habitat should be managed at three different scales: large landscapes of more than 10,000 acres, medium landscapes of 1,000 to typically around 5,000 acres but potentially up to 9,000+ acres (Sample et al. 1994, Henderson and Sample 1995), and small blocks of 40-1,000 acres.

Large-scale and medium-scale management areas foster the health of grassland bird communities and bird species that have varying degrees of area sensitivity. Large areas also typically contain greater natural variation in habitat structure, soil type, and topography than small areas. Some existing large landscapes are mostly publicly owned, but most new large landscapes will likely be a combination of private and public land. Most should be located in areas that were historically native grasslands to take advantage of the land formations, climate, and ecological features that naturally support management of open grassland habitat. However, some areas of cleared forest or former wetlands that are currently important to grassland birds, such as the Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands and the Clark/Marathon/Taylor county area, should also be considered.

Large-Scale Landscapes
Large-scale management areas should be at least 10,000-50,000 acres in size. Overall, large landscapes should incorporate extensive areas of open treeless grasslands. However, landscapes larger than 10,000 acres can also accommodate both open grasslands and some areas of upland shrub and savanna habitats that are consistent with presettlement conditions or do not conflict with grassland management goals. Large-scale landscapes can thus provide habitat for a more diverse bird community than most smaller landscapes.

Photo by Michelle Jesko: Idle grassland landscape
Extensive landscapes of idle grassland, such as this Dane County farmland enrolled in the CRP, are used by a number of grassland birds of management concern. Many of these landscapes are large enough to attract area-sensitive species such as northern harrier, upland sandpiper, and short-eared owl. Idle grasslands play an important role in large- and medium-scale landscapes.  

Most of the land in these large areas can remain in private ownership, with compatible agricultural uses, but the core of the project should be an area of permanent grassland at least 2,000 acres in size. Securing this core grassland for new areas may involve some acquisition and permanent conservation easements. At least 35% of the land within the rest of the management area should be in permanent or long-term grass cover including pasture, long-term set-aside such as CRP land, conservation easements, prairie remnants, and other idle grasslands—75% of which should be in blocks of 40 acres or more scattered through-out the area. The remainder (52% of the total project area) could stay in active crop production, ideally in small grains and hay (cut after 15 July or adjacent to idle grass cover). Removal of most linear tree and shrub cover, especially in fencelines and roadsides, should be encouraged throughout the management area, especially around the core grassland area, which will reduce the amount of potential nest parasite and predator habitat (Henderson and Sample 1995, Fitzgerald 1996).

Medium-Scale Landscapes
Medium-scale management areas should be at least 1,000-5,000 acres in size. These areas should have a 250-1,000 acre core of permanent grassland, with 35% of the remaining land in permanent grass cover and the rest in productive agriculture—roughly the same proportions as for large-scale areas. In medium-scale landscapes that encompass local concentrations of prairie remnants and pastures on unplowed, original prairie sod, a management goal should be to restore as much of the intervening land to prairie as feasible. Medium-scale grassland areas are best suited to landscapes where large-scale areas are not feasible, or where the extent of suitable landscape is limited.

Small Blocks
The general rule of thumb for grassland management units—at all scales—is the larger the better, even for small blocks of land. Blocks of grassland habitat should be at least 40 acres in size. Blocks of 80-250 acres are preferable to smaller blocks, and blocks of 250-1,000 acres are the most desirable in this size category. Small blocks should not be isolated on the landscape, but concentrated as closely together as possible, preferably adjacent to or connected by other suitable grassland habitat such as idle grassland or pasture. Blocks less than 40 acres in size may be valuable if located directly adjacent to suitable idle grassland habitat similar to the managed block so that the total amount of grassland is more than 40 acres.

Habitat blocks should approximate circle or square shapes to minimize the edge-to-interior ratio as much as possible. Habitat strips should be at least 220 yards wide for the same reason (Figure 3). The aim here is to reduce the negative effects of increased nest predation, parasitism, and possibly competition near edges.
Figure 3: Illustration comparing preferred (left) versus non-preferred (right) shapes for grassland habitat blocks and strips
Figure 3.  When planning small blocks or strips of grassland habitat, keep in mind that some shapes and proportions are better for grassland birds than others.

Habitat Distribution

When planning the distribution of blocks of grassland habitat in large areas or landscapes, it is important to consider the predominant land uses and development patterns of the area, as well as other ecological factors. This will maximize the benefits to grassland birds and will wisely use limited time and money available to resource managers.

There are two major ways to distribute habitat across landscapes: consolidated (clumped) and scattered. The aim of both is to maximize the amount of grassland bird habitat in large blocks. We suggest that managed grassland habitat blocks should be scattered in landscapes where the predominant surrounding land uses already are dominated by suitable grassland habitats. Buena Vista/Leola Grasslands is a good example of such a landscape, although increasing acreage devoted to irrigated row crops and cranberry bogs are changing the landscape make-up there. In this scenario, there is a good likelihood that any managed grassland parcel will be close to and complement the existing suitable habitat. Siting decisions should maximize the use of adjacent suitable habitat whenever possible.

Habitat blocks can be consolidated in two different kinds of landscapes:

  • Landscapes that are intensely agricultural or primarily urban and suburban, such as much of the intensively agricultural southeast.

  • Landscapes that offer special opportunities for the preservation of large areas of existing idle grasslands, such as open, diverse, and brush prairie barrens and sedge meadows in the Crex Meadows/Fish Lake area.

In the case of intensively agricultural areas, little suitable habitat already exists in the landscape. It may be necessary to initiate several large-scale plantings or native grassland restorations (at least 500-1,500 acres) to create enough quality grassland habitat in one landscape. However, as we suggested above, many of these landscapes are inappropriate for grassland management for social or economic reasons. Some of the existing large landscapes with lots of suitable, idle grasslands will be appropriate for either scattered or consolidated habitat distribution.

Surrounding Land Use

Effective Habitat Size
Habitat size can be defined in various ways in grasslands, and the way in which it is defined affects conclusions about bird habitat size requirements. For example, consider two prairie remnants, both of the same size: one is in a landscape of pastures, old fields, small grains, some row crops, and disturbed wet meadows with little or no woody cover; the other is in a landscape of farmsteads, woodlots, and hedgerows surrounding small crop fields. While it is easy to establish the actual size of each prairie remnant it is difficult to define the "effective" habitat size—that is, the habitat size as it is used by birds that occupy the remnant. In the case of the prairie surrounded by hedgerows, woodlots, and farmsteads, the effective size of the suitable grassland bird habitat may be the size of the remnant itself. In the other case, the entire landscape—including the remnant, small grains, pastures, old fields, and row crops—may be the effective habitat size. Therefore the character of the surrounding land use may affect bird occupancy of a habitat patch. In some cases the nature of the habitat around a site may be more important than the field or patch size. Our preliminary research confirms this (Sample 1995).

Because grassland birds are influenced by land uses adjacent to blocks of managed habitat, effective habitat size is really the management block plus the amount of suitable grassland habitat adjacent to or very near the managed block. The placement and configuration of habitat blocks in relation to other habitat types becomes an important determinant of effective habitat size and of the species composition, species richness, and density of grassland birds that use the site. Examples of idealized arrangements of grassland habitats on a typical farm or Wildlife Area are presented in Figures 4 and 5. Note that managers should consider the degree of management control over—and the permanence of—suitable surrounding land uses. Some types such as CRP land may be less secure over the long term than others, such as grassland with a conservation easement.

Figure 4: Illustrated layout of a farm consisting of four crop fields, a pasture, sedge meadow, and idle grassland
Figure 4.  An example of an idealized arrangement of habitats on a Wisconsin farm.
a Grassland habitat that is not disturbed during the breeding season (e.g., old field, set-aside, conservation easement).
b Arrows symbolize rotation of crops.

Figure 5: Illustraded layout of a Wildlife Area consisting of woods, warm and cool season grasses and forbs, sedge meadow, and an old field
Figure 5.  Idealized arrangement of habitats on part of a Wildlife Area managed for grassland birds.

Buffers of grassland vegetation between managed grassland habitat and either farmsteads or woody vegetation can increase effective size. In particular, row crops, although not quality grassland bird habitat, can be used to buffer managed grassland habitat from woody edges and may therefore buffer against nest predation and parasitism. The presence of some row crops may be used in other cases to contribute to the overall size of a treeless landscape.

Photo by Michael Mossman: Farmstead surrounded by grass-dominated hay
Farmland with large expanses of grass-dominated hay, such as this farm in Buffalo County, are valuable for a number of bird species of management concern—especially because such fields are often mowed late enough in the breeding season for successful nesting to occur.  

Suitable vs. Unsuitable Adjacent Habitats
The habitats listed in Table 1 are suitable grassland habitats for at least some grassland birds, with some general exceptions (discussed below). Idle grassland habitats are almost always of higher value as suitable habitat than those that are disturbed during the breeding season. The degree of suitability for any given grassland habitat depends in part on the targeted bird community or species. For example, the degree of acceptable woody cover depends on whether we are managing for bobolink or for field sparrow. Also, it would be less effective to manage a 25 acre parcel of idle, toll grassland with no woody cover next to a 30 acre oak or river barrens remnant than it would be to manage the idle grassland next to a large pasture, because the former two habitat types attract different kinds of bird species and do not function as well as a single large block of habitat.

Unsuitable habitats for grassland birds include grasslands with too much woody cover (i.e., generally more than 30% cover), habitats with abundant linear woody cover, farmsteads, and suburban developments. Row crops (although providing foraging habitat for some species), most parks, and golf courses are also unsuitable habitats; while they are used by some grassland birds they typically are not productive habitats. Since most hay is cut well before 15 July, hay should be avoided in general, especially in southern Wisconsin, unless mowing can be delayed. Grass-dominated hayfields that are typically cut late in the season are an exception to this rule. Concentrations of such fields exist in the northern half of the state, including Clark, Taylor, Marathon, Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, St. Croix, and Door counties. The presence of idle grassland cover near hayfields may provide re-nesting habitat for birds displaced from a mowed field after cutting.

Woody Cover and Edge Issues

Blocks of open grassland habitat should be structurally open and relatively free of farmsteads and major linear woody edges such as woodlots, hedgerows, and woody fencelines that fragment the habitat and create edges for nest parasites, predator habitat, and corridors for predator movement. In most cases woody cover should be kept to a maximum of 5% of grassland habitat. This is especially true when management is focusing on obligate grassland species that do not require much if any woody vegetation. In such cases it is desirable to have the edge of any managed grassland habitat greater than 110 yards from any major woody edges or developments such as farmsteads and homes that are present in the area. In general, woody cover below 3.25 ft (1 m) high can exceed the suggested 5% maximum but should not exceed 20%.

Figure 6: Illustration comparing preferred (top) versus non-preferred (bottom) patterns of woody vegetation
Figure 6.  Some patterns of woody vegetation are better for grassland birds than others because they reduce negative effects of edges.

However, the amount and type of woody vegetation depends largely on the targeted bird species or community as well as on the size of the management block. Scattered shrubs, shrubby patches, and small trees (less than 30% total cover and less than 10 ft tall) may be beneficial to shrub-grassland species, such as loggerhead shrike, Bell's vireo, and field and clay-colored sparrow. Oak savanna species such as American kestrel, red-headed woodpecker, eastern kingbird, and orchard oriole benefit from scattered mature, open-grown trees. Most other grassland species readily use small shrubs and trees as perches, even if they don't require them. For species that do require woody vegetation, irregular patterns of scattered woody plants and irregular, shrubby edges to woodlots are preferred over hard, linear edges (Ratti and Reese 1988) (Figure 6).

Photo by Michael Mossman: Arial view of fragmented agricultural landscape
A typical fragmented agricultural landscape, in Waukesha County. Hedgerows provide abundant habitat and movement corridors for nest predators and perches for brown-headed cowbirds.  

Habitat Structure and Other Features

Differences in bird communities among habitats are largely determined by differences in habitat structure rather than by differences in plant species composition, although the two are certainly related. The following features of habitat structure are particularly important to grassland birds.9

  • Vegetation height-density
  • Height and cover of woody vegetation
  • Litter depth and cover
  • Cover of standing residual (dead) vegetation, cover of exposed soil, and cover of live herbaceous vegetation.
  • Ratio of grass vs. forb cover

Photo by Michael Mossman: Biologist demonstrating use of the Robel pole   Photo by Lisa Dlutkowski: Robel pole showing a height-density of 55 cm
Height-density of vegetation is measured with a Robel Pole, which is marked in 5 centimeter increments. An observer views the marked pole from a distance of four meters and from the top of a second pole 1.5 meters tall and records the lowest visible part of the marked pole, rounded to the nearest 5 centimeters. A field of relatively homogeneous grass cover, with a Robel pole showing a height-density of 55 centimeters.

One of the most common ways to categorize grassland species is into three groups based on general vegetation height-density preference—shortgrass, midgrass, and tallgrass. However, while vegetation height-density is an important and easily measured structural feature of vegetation for grassland birds, for some species it may not be the most important feature affecting whether or not they occur in a given habitat or field. For example,

  • For many of the species requiring woody vegetation, the type and quantity of woody cover and how it is arranged in a habitat is more important in determining habitat occupancy than the height-density of herbaceous vegetation (e.g., clay-colored and field sparrows readily use scattered shrubs, while Bell's vireo tends to prefer clumps or patches of shrubs).

  • For some species requiring large areas, such as greater prairie-chicken, northern harrier, and short-eared and barn owl, the landscape's size, openness, and the existing combination and configuration of habitats within it are more important in determining habitat suitability than the height-density or other structural features of specific fields.

  • For species requiring open water, such as waterfowl, the presence and type of wetlands in a favorable relationship to nearby grasslands may be the most important factor in habitat selection (see Appendix F).

Accordingly, grassland bird species of management concern are ultimately placed into one of six categories in Table 5 (shortgrass, midgrass, tallgrass, species requiring woody vegetation or nest structures, species requiring open water, and species requiring large areas), which includes brief descriptions of both the general and specific habitat features required by grassland birds. All grassland bird species (including those not of management concern) are placed in to one of the six categories in Appendix F.

Grassland birds also may occupy suitable micro-sites within a larger, less suitable habitat patch, which complicates habitat description and ultimately species management. For example, a field of dense switchgrass—a tallgrass habitat that normally harbors such species as sedge wren; common yellowthroat; song, swamp, and Henslow's sparrow; and red-winged blackbird—may have small patches that are poorly established or weedy. These areas may be occupied by typical shortgrass species such as grasshopper or vesper sparrows. Most fields, particularly large ones, have variations in topography or soil type that affect vegetation structure, and these differences in structure are often reflected by subtle differences in bird community composition in a given habitat. Therefore, managing a field as a particular habitat type is no guarantee that only certain species or bird communities will occur there.

Photo by Leroy Petersen: Standing residual vegetation
Standing residual vegetation, such as the switchgrass depicted in this photo at the Pieper WPA in Dodge County, is important in the spring for species such as Henslow's sparrow and sedge wren.  

Diversity of vegetation structure and cover types should be promoted at a variety of scales: within most fields or blocks of habitat, among fields or blocks of habitats, within a landscape, within natural divisions, and within the entire state. Structural diversity can be reflected by differences in vegetation height and density, woody cover, amount of exposed soil, grass to forb ratio, litter depth and cover, and other variables. Natural factors such as soil type, hydrology, topography, and climate should be used to best advantage in producing diversity at all scales. Managers should maintain a spectrum of different field ages (for example fallow fields, old fields, and old and young plantings of grasses and forbs) by varying the length of disturbance cycles; this also encourages structural diversity among fields.

Much of the habitat managed as grassland in the state, especially in areas where soils are not dry, thin, or sandy, contains relatively tall and dense vegetation. Overall, there is a great shortage of grassland vegetation in the short and medium height-density categories.

Within a field less than 80 acres, only one cover type should typically be represented. Within that field, however, structural diversity can vary and should be achieved by planting diverse plant species, including roughly 10% forb cover. Fields or blocks of habitat greater than 80 acres may consist of either more than one cover type or a single cover type. The degree of diversity also varies depending on the target species or communities, some of which require large expanses of habitat with homogeneous structure. We end up with a mix of habitats and landscapes, many diverse, some more homogeneous, with the result that the overall character of grassland habitat in the state is diverse.

Disturbance Patterns

Most grassland habitats in Wisconsin are in agricultural landscapes. During the breeding season, many of these habitats are subject to farming-related disturbances that may severely lower the reproductive performance of nesting grassland birds (Rodenhouse and Best 1983, Frawley 1989).

Even among bird species that nest early—such as meadowlarks and horned lark—or species that nest late—such as dickcissel and American goldfinch—there is substantial overlap between the peak nesting season and agricultural field operations, such as planting, cultivating, fertilizing, and harvesting (Best 1986, Frawley 1989). The conservation of undisturbed or idle habitats during the breeding season is therefore important to the conservation of grassland birds. Also, since most species prefer at least some residual vegetation in the spring, it is important that some sites are not harvested or burned following the previous fall or late summer. Species that require significant standing residual vegetation or litter layer in the spring—such as Henslow's sparrow or eastern meadowlark, respectively—prefer habitats that have not been disturbed since the previous spring.

      Because grassland bird habitat requirements are diverse, management designed to benefit one or a few species will not necessarily benefit all other species.
Grassland bird habitat should be managed at three different scales: large landscapes of more than 10,000 acres, medium landscapes of intermediate size, and small blocks of 40-1,000 acres.

Drawing by Cary Hunkel: Yellow rail
Yellow rail

The general rule of thumb for grassland management units—at all scales—is the larger the better, even for small blocks of land.

Drawing by Cary Hunkel: Short-eared owl
Short-eared owl

Because grassland birds are influenced by land uses adjacent to blocks of managed habitat, effective habitat size is really the management block plus the amount of suitable grassland habitat adjacent to or very near the managed block.

Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Le Conte's sparrow
Le Conte's sparrow

Idle grassland cover near hayfields may provide re-nesting habitat for birds displaced from a mowed field after cutting.

Drawing by Cary Hunkel: Bell's vireo
 Bell's vireo

Diversity of vegetation structure and cover types sould be promoted at a variety of scales
The goal is a mix of habitats and landscapes, many diverse, some more homogeneous, with the result that the overall character of grassland habitat in the state is diverse.

Drawing by Cary Hunkel: Orchard oriole
Orchard oriole

Drawing by Jim McEvoy: Yellow Coneflower
 Yellow Coneflower

9 See Table 5 and Appendix F for detailed notes on habitat structural requirements for grassland bird species; see also Sample (1989) and Sample (1995) for a detailed description of structural variables and how they were measured.
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