Current management recommendations for grassland birds in North America emphasize providing large patches of grassland habitat within landscapes that have few forest or shrubland areas. These Bird Conservation Areas are being proposed under the assumption that large patches of habitat in treeless landscapes will maintain viable populations of grassland birds. This assumption requires that patch size and landscape features affect density and nesting success of grassland birds, and that these effects are consistent among years and regions and across focal species. However, these assumptions have not yet been validated for grassland birds, and the relative importance of local vegetation structure, patch size, and landscape composition on grassland bird populations is not well known. In addition, factors influencing grassland bird nesting success have been investigated mostly in small-scale and short-duration studies. To develop management guidelines for grassland birds, we tested the spatial and temporal repeatability of the influence of patch size and landscape composition on density and nesting success of 3 grassland passerines, after controlling for local-scale vegetation structure, climate, and—when analyzing nest success—bird density. We conducted our study during 4 years (1998–2001) in 44 study plots that were set up in 3 regions of the northern tallgrass prairie in Minnesota and North Dakota, USA. In these study plots we measured density and nesting success of clay-colored sparrows (Spizella pallida), Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis), and bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). Statistical models indicated that density was influenced by patch size, landscape, region, and local vegetation structure more so than by local vegetation structure alone. Both magnitude and direction of the response of density to patch size varied among regions, years, and species. In contrast, the direction of landscape effects was consistent among regions, years, and between Savannah sparrows and bobolinks. In each species, this landscape effect was independent of patch size. Nesting success was not clearly influenced by patch size or landscape composition, and none of the factors that influenced avian density also influenced nesting success in any of the 3 species. General statements on “optimal habitat” for grassland birds should therefore be viewed cautiously. Instead, long-term studies in different regions as well as a deeper understanding of the local system are needed to determine which factors are most important for grassland birds in a particular area.
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Vol. 70 • No. 1