Exotic grasses such as bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) and tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus) are widely established across the southeastern United States as livestock forage, but their structure and management can limit avian reproductive success. Native warm-season grasses (NWSG) are promoted as sustainable forage alternatives. To examine nesting suitability for tall structure specialists such as Dickcissels (Spiza americana) we established an operational-scale study in northeastern Mississippi, USA, with 4 treatments along a gradient of beef production intensity. Treatments included grazed exotic forages, 2 grazed NWSG treatments including Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) monoculture and NWSG polyculture of Indiangrass, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and an ungrazed NWSG polyculture treatment. We monitored 208 Dickcissel nests in 2011 and 2012 to evaluate effects of treatment, vegetation structure, fire ants (Solenopsis spp.), and arthropod prey biomass on nest-site selection and nest survival. Survival rates varied among treatments and increased with pasture-scale visual obstruction reading (VOR), being lowest among grazed exotic grass, intermediate in grazed NWSG, and highest in ungrazed NWSG. Although Dickcissels selected nest sites with greater VOR, we found little support for effects of nest-site vegetation on survival. However, nest survival was lower for nests in shrubs that also occurred in pastures with greater shrub cover, and selection for shrubs declined as pasture-scale VOR increased, suggesting a functional response in selection. We found little support for food availability influencing nest survival. These results suggest NWSG pastures increase Dickcissel nest success through greater pasture-scale VOR by reducing Dickcissel selection of shrubs for nest sites, and possibly by reducing predator efficiency. Incorporating NWSG into beef production systems while maintaining availability of tall vegetation could benefit Dickcissels and other tall structure specialists.
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Vol. 121 • No. 3