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Wetland Birds of the Northern Great Plains

When the Wisconsin glacier retreated about 10,000 years ago, it left innumerable depressions scattered throughout the northern Great Plains. These depressional wetlands, called prairie potholes, contain water for various lengths of time in most years (Kantrud et al. 1989), Their size, permanence, hydrology, water chemistry, plant associations, and invertebrate communities vary widely among wetlands and, within a basin, through time (Cowardin et al. 1979).

These diverse wetlands support a breeding avifauna as rich and varied as the wetlands themselves. Johnsgard (1979) listed 72 breeding bird species associated with freshwater pond environments in the Great Plains. Other species, such as the northern harrier, marbled godwit, Le Conte's sparrow, and Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow, are associated with grasslands but extensively use these prairie wetlands. Stewart (1975) identified 63 breeding bird species as wetland associates in North Dakota alone. Since 1975, several species could be added to Stewart's list (Faaries and Stewart 1992), including the reintroduced Canada goose (Lee et al. 1989) and several herons, egrets, and ibises that have expanded their breeding range into the state (Lokemoen 1979). Most wetland birds are short-distance migrants, wintering primarily north of the United States-Mexico border (Igl and Johnson 1995).

Wetland birds are not easily monitored by standard census techniques (Bibby et al, 1992), Dense vegetation reduces the visibility of some species. Many species lack territorial songs or rarely call; others that make diagnostic sounds do so primarily or only at night. Some species, such as rails, are notoriously elusive, even within a few meters of an observer (Burt 1994). Others are colonial, resulting in tremendous spatial variability in their numbers. Thus, no single technique works well for censusing all wetland species. Accurate censusing of wetland birds requires a variety of techniques, including nocturnal surveys, nest counts, intensive efforts involving walking or canoeing through marshes, and the use of recorded calls to elicit responses (Weller 1986). Recently, an informal group that monitors marsh birds has formed to address such issues.

Kantrud and Stewart (1984) surveyed breeding populations of wetland bird species other than waterfowl on 1,321 wetland basins in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota. Densities of each species were reported for six different classes of wetlands (as defined by Stewart and Kantrud 1971; Table 1). Four of the wetland classes (permanent, semipermanent, seasonal, and temporary) were distinguished by water permanence as indicated by the vegetative zone occupying the deepest part of the basin. Alkali wetlands were recognized by the occurrence of hypersaline surface water, and fens were identified by a characteristic zone of fen vegetation that develops where groundwater seeps saturate the soil. Most wetland species were found on semipermanent and seasonal wetlands, reflecting the variety of habitats within these wetland classes (Table 1). Although some species were found in all wetland classes, most species showed a preference for, one or two classes.

Table 1.   Densities (breeding pairs per square kilometer) of breeding birds by wetland class in North Dakota (Kantrud and Stewart 1984).
Species Wetland class
Temporary Seasonal Semipermanent Permanent Alkali Fen
Pied-billed grebe   5.4 11.9 1.3   12.2
Horned grebe   1.4 0.6 0.3    
Eared grebe   3.9 1.9 1.6    
Western grebe     0.2 2.8    
American bittern 5.8 3.3 5.8 0.1   8.4
Black-crowned night-heron   0.4 4.2 1.0   17.2
Northern harrier   0.6 1.5     7.5
Virginia rail   0.4 1.8     7.5
Sora 10.1 12.9 12.6   0.2 25.1
American coot 25.2 73.8 180.5 8.9   52.8
Piping plover     0.2   2.2  
Killdeer 20.6 7.2 5.3 1.2 2.0  
American avocet   3.2 3.2   19.5  
Willet 10.1 12.3 7.0 1.0 1.3 2.5
Marbled godwit 10.1 6.9 3.6 0.1 2.7 5.0
Wilson's phalarope 45.4 28.9 11.5 0.1 4.3 5.0
Black tern 5.8 19.0 44.9 3.3   17.2
Marsh wren   4.9 43.8     52.6
Common yellowthroat   7.9 7.8     55.4
Savannah sparrow 188.9 21.5 15.4   5.0 8.6
Red-winged blackbird 300.0 99.8 106.8 16.9 14.9 125.5
Yellow-headed blackbird 11.1 18.1 253.3     271.0
Total 633.1 331.8 723.8 38.6 52.1 673.5

Population estimates and trends of wetland bird species, exclusive of waterfowl, are limited. In 1967 Stewart and Kantrud (1972) conducted an extensive survey of breeding bird populations throughout North Dakota to obtain baseline estimates of statewide breeding bird abundance and frequency of occurrence. In 1992 and 1993 Igl and Johnson (1997) repeated the survey by using the same sample units and methods as the 1967 survey to examine changes in breeding bird populations. These data offer both overall population estimates and some indication of population changes from 1967 to now (Table 2). According to habitat affinities, wetland species composed the largest proportion (32%) of species and 22% of the observed breeding pairs during the three years covered in the two Igl and Johnson surveys. The species that declined in North Dakota were mostly grassland and wetland species, whereas increasing species were predominantly resident species and species associated with human structures and woody vegetation (Igl and Johnson 1995). Similarly, results from the U.S. Geological Survey Breeding Bird Survey for North Dakota showed that 23 of the 28 (82%) observed species with statistically significant decreasing trends in the state were associated with wetland or grassland habitats.

Table 2.   Breeding bird populations in North Dakota: numbers in 128 randomly selected quarter-sections and statewide population estimates, 1967 and 1992-1993.
Species Number of breeding pairs Population estimate
1967 1992 1993 1967 1992-1993
Pied-billed grebe 11 4 7 24,000 12,000
Horned grebe 2 1 0 4,000 1,000
Red-necked grebe 0 1 1 0 2,000
Eared grebe 40 48 22 90,000 78,000
Western grebe 0 2 1 0 3,000
American white pelican 0 0 2 0 2,000
Double-crested cormorant 0 1 10 0 12,000
American bittern 9 2 8 19,000 10,000
Great blue heron 2 1 3 4,000 4,000
Black-crowned night-heron 17 5 5 37,000 11,000
Northern harrier 15 21 34 33,000 60,000
Yellow rail 0 1 0 0 1,000
Virginia rail 3 5 2 7,000 8,000
Sora 32 41 78 68,000 128,000
American coot 348 76 124 761,000 220,000
Piping plover 5 2 1 11,000 3,000
Killdeer 105 112 142 227,000 280,000
American avocet 14 6 13 31,000 21,000
Willet 18 16 27 39,000 48,000
Spotted sandpiper 12 12 9 26,000 22,000
Marbled godwit 17 8 14 37,000 24,000
Common snipe 0 2 7 0 10,000
Wilson's phalarope 73 30 36 157,000 72,000
Franklin's gull 22 79 56 48,000 148,000
Ring-billed gull 1 49 11 2,000 65,000
California gull 0 0 2 0 2,000
Forster's tern 3 6 4 6,000 11,000
Common tern 6 6 3 13,000 10,000
Black tern 118 39 39 254,000 84,000
Belted kingfisher 0 1 1 0 2,000
Sedge wren 10 20 37 22,000 62,000
Marsh wren 51 113 153 112,000 293,000
Common yellowthroat 134 91 175 285,000 286,000
Le Conte's sparrow 6 2 14 12,000 16,000
Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow 3 3 13 7,000 34,000
Red-winged blackbird 945 597 710 2,038,000 1,421,000
Yellow-headed blackbird 89 155 175 193,000 356,000

We obtained trends for abundance of 43 wetland birds from the Breeding Bird Survey (Robbins et at. 1986) for the central region (from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River) during the entire survey period (1966-1994) and for two subperiods: early (1966-1979) and recent (1980-1994) (Table 3). Population increases outnumbered decreases for each of the three time intervals, The percentage of species with increasing trends was 67% during the early subperiod (1966-1979) and 55% during the recent subperiod (1980-1994). For the entire survey period (1966-1994), seven species increased significantly; these included mostly colonial-nesting species (American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, and three gull species). Five species decreased significantly; all of these frequently nest in emergent wetland vegetation (northern harrier, Franklin's gull, black tern, common yellowthroat, and red-winged blackbird).

Table 3.   Trends from the U.S. Geological Survey Breeding Bird Survey for the central region, 1966-1994, 1966-1979, and 1980-1994. Also given is average number recorded per route (R.A.) for the entire period.
Species 1966-1994 1966-1979 1980-1994
R.A. Trenda Trenda Trenda
Pied-billed grebe 0.39 0.5 1.2 5.8
Eared grebe 0.67 5.2 24.0 -16.2 ↓
American white pelican 1.22 3.5 ↑ 0 1.1
Double-crested cormorant 0.56 26.6 ↑ 6.7 ↑ 11.1 ↑
American bittern 0.50 -3.1 -4.9 0.1
Great blue heron 0.89 3.0 ↑ 6.4 ↑ 0.6
Black-crowned night-heron 0.37 3.3 -10.3 ↓ 2.2
Yellow-crowned night-heron 0.53 0.7 19.6 -2.9
Great egret 2.84 3.8 4.2 4.4 ↑
Snowy egret 1.66 27.5 87.2 15.7 ↑
Little blue heron 2.98 -1.8 -0.9 -3.9 ↓
Tricolored heron 1.20 10.4 88.0 -4.1
Cattle egret 21.67 2.2 5.2 -2.8 ↓
Green heron 1.00 0.6 1.2 -3.4 ↓
White ibis 6.10 22.3 ↑ 80.0 17.4 ↑
White-faced ibis 5.90 8.5 9.1 -9.9
Northern harrier 0.61 -2.1 ↓ -1.9 -0.3
King rail 0.82 -1.4 5.0 -2.0
Sora 0.94 -2.6 -8.5 ↓ 11.0 ↑
Common moorhen 1.79 6.1 22.4 ↑ 0.6
American coot 2.14 -0.8 -1.5 3.6
Killdeer 8.88 -0.3 3.0 ↑ -2.0 ↓
American avocet 0.63 -0.2 11.2 ↑ -1.8
Willet 1.03 -1.8 4.7 ↑ -0.4
Spotted sandpiper 0.08 2.1 9.4 -2.2
Marbled godwit 1.36 0.7 7.9 ↑ ---
Common snipe 1.22 0.7 6.7 ↑ -1.0
Wilson's phalarope 1.24 -3.2 -5.7 ↓ 6.7
Franklin's gull 7.55 -7.6 ↓ -17.0 ↓ 42.3 ↑
Ring-billed gull 2.47 6.4 ↑ -5.6 ↓ 10.3 ↑
California gull 0.95 17.6 ↑ -9.3 11.3 ↑
Laughing gull 12.95 5.4 ↑ 7.5 -3.2
Forster's tern 0.54 0.7 12.1 ↑ -0.9
Black tern 2.70 -5.0 ↓ -13.0 ↓ 2.7
Belted kingfisher 0.16 -1.6 -1.4 0.8
Sedge wren 1.25 1.3 -4.1 ↓ 5.7 ↑
Marsh wren 1.34 3.6 -4.9 ↓ 6.7 ↑
Common yellowthroat 6.87 -0.9 ↓ 1.8 ↑ -2.1 ↓
Le Conte's sparrow 0.84 0.7 6.5 7.3
Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow 0.15 5.2 0 17.7 ↑
Swamp sparrow 0.25 1.3 6.3 ↑ 2.5
Red-winged blackbird 85.09 -0.5 ↓ 1.1 ↑ -1.3 ↓
Yellow-headed blackbird 15.77 0.5 3.3 -2.1 ↓
a Average percentage annual change between 1967 and 1993: ↓ indicates statistically significant population decline; ↑ indicates statistically significant population increase.

These data are consistent with earlier reports showing that breeding bird populations in wetland ecosystems are as dynamic as they are rich. The divergent patterns observed among the species and studies reflect the species' disparate habitat requirements, geographic ranges, and unique responses to natural and anthropogenic changes in their environments. Determining the status and trends of wetland bird populations is a necessary first step toward the more daunting challenge of understanding the mechanisms that drive population changes.


This resource is based on the following source (Northern Prairie Publication 1058):
Igl, Lawrence D., and Douglas H. Johnson.  1998.  Highlight Box:  Wetland 
     Birds in the Northern Great Plains.  Pages 454-455 in M. J. Mac, 
     P. A. Opler, C. E. Puckett Haecker, and P. D. Doran, eds.  Status 
     and Trends of the Nation's Biological Resources, Vol. 2.  U.S. 
     Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

This resource should be cited as:

Igl, Lawrence D., and Douglas H. Johnson.  1998.  Highlight Box:  Wetland 
     Birds in the Northern Great Plains.  Pages 454-455 in M. J. Mac, 
     P. A. Opler, C. E. Puckett Haecker, and P. D. Doran, eds.  Status 
     and Trends of the Nation's Biological Resources, Vol. 2.  
     Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  
     http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/2000/grlands/grlands.htm 
     (Version 21JAN2000).

See Literature Cited for references

Authors

Lawrence D. Igl
Douglas H. Johnson
U.S. Geological Survey
Biological Resources Division
Northern Prairie Science Center
Jamestown, North Dakota 58401-7317

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