Grassland Birds

The Big Picture

The Northern Great Plains provide invaluable habitat for native and migrating birds, including most of North America’s imperiled grassland bird species. In riparian corridors, sagebrush and the grasses themselves, hundreds of species of birds make their permanent homes or land for a short time during their annual migrations. With more than 40% of North America’s declining bird populations dependent on grassland habitat, American Prairie Reserve provides a unique resource for the ongoing preservation of avian diversity in the United States.

Progress to Date

Watch Video: Click photo to see the video “Once Around the Sun on American Prairie Reserve,” which includes footage of many birds, including sharp tail grouse on their lek and the sage grouse’s ritual mating dance.

2005, 2009 and 2013:  Species Count & Distribution Surveys
In order to provide a complete inventory of birds on American Prairie Reserve, a study funded by World Wildlife Fund and conducted by Wild Things Unlimited surveyed the number of different species types, the number of individuals within each species and species distribution throughout the area’s grasslands, sagebrush communities, prairie dog towns and wetlands in 2005, 2009, and 2013.  A total of 159 species were observed on the Reserve during 2013 (up from 132 in 2009), including 14 species not seen in previous years.  Of the total 159 species,

  • 53 were water birds (ducks, geese, grebes, pelican, cormorant, herons, rails, cranes, shorebirds, gulls and terns),
  • 4 were upland game birds,
  • 15 were raptors (hawks, eagles, falcons and owls), four were upland game birds (grouse, pheasant and partridge) and
  • 87 were songbirds.

Portions of surrounding South Phillips County were also surveyed in both years.  Twenty-seven bird species observed in South Phillips County and 22 seen on American Prairie Reserve are listed as Species Of Concern by the State of Montana.

2010: Bird Populations and Grassland Grazing Survey
In 2010, researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) concluded a survey of bird populations in relation to grassland grazing on American Prairie Reserve. The survey examined the relationship between bird populations dependent on tall or short grass habitat and the intensity of wild and domestic grazing in the region. The researchers identified the presence of longspurs and grasshopper sparrows as strong indicators of thriving short grass habitat, with Sprague’s pipits and Baird’s sparrows indicating a healthy tall grass habitat and the presence of Brewer’s sparrows and sage grouse indicating areas with adequate sagebrush.

Next Steps

Findings of the survey by Wild Things Unlimited will be used as baseline data for tracking trends in bird species distributions and numbers in subsequent years, as part of ongoing monitoring of key avian habitat.  Volunteers with the Landmark adventure science program will track sage grouse populations in 2014 and add additional species to their monitoring efforts in the 2015-2016 field seasons.