As the grasslands change and disappear, what happens to the birds?

The American Great Plains have seen many changes during the last century and a half as agriculture and increased human settlement have changed a once common landscape into one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. A team of ecologists set out to discover how changes to the region have affected birds living in the middle of the continent. The results of their work have been published in this month's Ecological Applications (volume 11 number 1).

The research team, led by Bryan R. Coppedge and David M. Engle of Oklahoma State University, examined data from breeding bird surveys conducted between 1965-1995 in the southern Great Plains of Oklahoma. The researchers compared the survey results to information regarding the changing landscapes in these same areas.

Like much of the land comprising the Great Plains of the United States, the areas examined in this study have seen drastic land use changes in the last several decades. Areas which were once open grasslands have become mosaics of cultivated croplands, prairie remnants, and expanding woodlands.

Fire, which once restricted the growth of trees, has been strictly controlled in many areas. This has increased the number of junipers and mesquite trees. Trees have also been planted throughout the area for use as windbreaks and shelterbelts.

Coppedge's team found that the increase of trees in the area was beneficial to certain kinds of neotropical migrant birds, specifically those which prefer woody habitat such as Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Great-crested Flycatchers, and Mississippi Kites.

Similarly, the number of temperate migrant and resident bird species in the study areas seemed to increase throughout much of the last two decades. From 1981 to 1995 Cattle Egrets, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Bewick's Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Field Sparrows, and American crows all increased in the areas studied. These birds, Coppedge points out, are all associated with

Contact: Alison Gillespie
202-833-8773 ext 211
Ecological Society of America

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