Grassland birds have declined more than any other North American habitat-associated bird community. Because most species of grassland birds evolved within heterogeneous landscapes created by the interaction of fire and grazing, traditional rangeland management that promotes homogeneity, including annual dormant-season burning combined with early-intensive grazing, might be partly responsible for these declines, especially in some regions of the Great Plains, USA. Recently, an alternative grassland management practice known as patch-burning has been promoted as a means of restoring heterogeneity to grasslands by mimicking the grazing–fire interaction that once occurred on the prairie before European settlement. From 2003 to 2004, we examined effects of patch-burning and traditional management (annual burning followed by early-intensive grazing) on the reproductive success of dickcissels (Spiza americana) in tallgrass prairie in Oklahoma. We monitored 296 dickcissel nests and found that dickcissel nesting phenology differed between traditional and patch-burned pastures. Specifically, dickcissels tended to initiate their nests later in the traditional pasture. Mean number of eggs laid and fledglings produced were similar between the treatments, but nest densities were higher in traditional pastures. Predation was the predominant cause of nest failure and was higher in traditional pastures than in patch-burned pastures. Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) parasitism was higher in traditional pastures than in patch-burned pastures. Overall, dickcissel nest success was higher in patch-burned pastures than in traditional pastures. The positive response of dickcissel nest success to patch-burn management provides further evidence that this practice can be a useful tool for grassland bird conservation. By creating a mosaic of different stature vegetation, patch-burn management enhances productivity of grassland bird species by providing a refuge area in the unburned patches that affords dickcissels and other nesting grassland birds some protection from the direct (e.g., trampling) and indirect (e.g., cowbird parasitism and predation) effects of grazing, which are not available under traditional management. Patch-burn management should be encouraged as a conservation strategy for grassland birds throughout the Great Plains.
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