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Effects of Fire in the Northern Great Plains

Effects of Fire on Upland Gamebirds


Upland gamebirds of the NGP include mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), woodcock (Scolopax minor), and galliforms. We exclude wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), which is considered a big-game species, and ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), because of its strong association to woodlands.

Mourning doves

The only research project specifically designed to evaluate the role of fire on dove nesting was done in west Texas (Soutiere and Bolen 1973) in mesquite (Prosopis spp)/shortgrass areas. Their major discovery was that, when woody species (mesquite) were removed, doves reverted to ground nesting with at least equal nest success. Otherwise, burning had little impact on dove nesting.

Several researchers (Kirsch and Kruse 1973; Lawrence 1966; Kruse and Piehl 1986) noted doves within their study areas but made no inferences. In Illinois, Edwards and Ellis (1969) observed several doves that flew only 10 to 20 ft (3-6 m) above flames and landed on warm ashes.

Greater prairie chickens

In Illinois, greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnates) nest densities increased from one nest per 9.3 acres (3.8 ha) to one nest per 6 acres (2.4 ha) for second, third, and fourth year post-burn sites (Westemeier 1973). These increases came after both spring and fall burns, the difference being the selection for cool-season grasses by burning in the fall (August) and the selection for warm-season grasses by burning in the spring (March).

Tester and Marshall (1961; 1962) stated that greater prairie chicken nesting rates in Minnesota would probably be at a minimum in the year following a burn. They suggested a 4-year prairie management schedule of burning, no treatment, grazing, and no treatment again.

Svedarsky (1979) recommended against burning of preferred prairie chicken nest habitats in spring in northwestern Minnesota. He did recommend fall burning of willow lowlands to create better brood habitat.

Anderson (1969) reported male greater prairie chickens used a lek (booming ground) only 1 day after burning.

Sharp-tailed grouse

Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) in Manitoba appeared to select a burned lek (dancing ground) over an unburned one.

The preference was quite likely due to changes in vegetation structure. The two leks were 525 yards (480 meters) apart (Sexton and Gillespie 1979). Ammann (1957) proposes that fire and lek use by males are related.

Four of five sharp-tailed grouse nests which were active during a spring burn in North Dakota eventually hatched (Kruse and Piehl, 1986). Kirsch and Kruse (1973) found two to three times as many nests on spring burned areas compared to unburned areas in North Dakota.

Sage grouse

There is a lack of conclusive information that compares burned versus unburned situations in sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) management, according to Klebenow and Beall (1978). Braun et al (1977) provide guidelines for managing sage grouse habitat, but they do not mention any effects of fire as a management tool.

Sage grouse habitat suffers in value as a direct result of attempts to convert sagebrush to grasslands (Braun et al 1977). Klebenow and Gray (1968) preferred fire over herbicides for managing sagebrush because fire does not remove all forbs. Seeds of forbs, including sagebrush seeds, are important food for sage grouse.

Northern bobwhite

Although northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) occur only incidentally in the NGP, they deserve mentioning.

In Illinois, Ellis et al (1969) compared three management systems for bobwhites: providing food patches (e.g. grains), prescribed burning with share cropping, and burning alone. All burning was done in late winter or early spring. They found the burn-share crop system to be the most productive and efficient, followed by burning alone and the food patch system.

In Nebraska, Erwin and Stasiak (1979) found two bobwhite nests destroyed by early spring prescribed fires. They did not note any successful nests.

In Illinois, Edwards and Ellis (1969) observed four bobwhites flying directly to a burn and landing within a few meters of the flames. They also reported observing a covey of quail flushed by fire and flying about 88 yd (80 m) away from the flames. Since there was no disorganization of the covey in flight or in landing, they surmised that the quail were relatively unafraid of the flames. They concluded that bobwhites respond rapidly to fire by immediately utilizing recently burned sites.

Other Species

Ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), gray partridges (Perdix perdix), and woodcocks were only occasionally mentioned in the fire literature.

Erwin and Stasiak (1979) observed 38 ring-necked pheasant nests destroyed in seeded native grassland by early spring prescribed fires in Nebraska. No successful nests were mentioned.

Edwards and Ellis (1969) observed a single "peenting" woodcock which flew from brushy cover and landed within 20 ft (6 m) of flames from a spring prescribed burn. The woodcock then initiated normal courtship behavior, alternating peenting with landing near the flames. They attributed this seemingly unconcerned behavior with fire adaptation.

In summary, recently burned areas appear to be attractive to greater prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, and northern bobwhites. These species also appear to increase in density in burned versus unburned areas.

Mourning doves have not exhibited significant population changes in response to burning. However, they have shown a change in nesting habitat selection, from trees and shrubs in unburned areas to ground nesting in burned areas.

Woodcocks, ring-necked pheasants, and gray partridges have been insufficiently researched to draw any specific conclusions.

We would expect that species that have evolved within the grassland environment would also have become more fire tolerant and perhaps more fire dependent than those that have not.

There is a great void in information which relates fire effects and the life cycles of upland game in the NGP. Even when studies have been made, they have not been replicated, which limits interpretation between populations.

Nevertheless, although we lack complete information on fire and upland game bird relationships, Kirsch and Kruse (1973) believe that, in general we have enough basic information to use fire as an effective management tool.


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