Large-scale loss and degradation of North American native prairie coupled with sharp declines in grassland bird populations call for a clear understanding of the effects of livestock production on bird habitat selection. Grassland birds typically select breeding habitat based on a suite of structural and community vegetation features shaped by grazing. Rangeland health indices are a tool for assessing grassland structure and community composition that may offer biologists and range managers common language to achieve grassland bird recovery goals. We used point-count surveys, vegetation measures, and indices of rangeland health to examine bird-habitat relationships on native grassland in southwestern Saskatchewan for 10 grassland bird species. We used an information theoretic approach to compare the support of three hypotheses explaining variation in bird abundance as a function of local vegetation characteristics: bird abundance is best explained by 1) vegetation structure, 2) vegetation structure heterogeneity, or 3) plant community. Vegetation structure variables were present in top-ranking models (i.e., models within four Akaike information criterion units of top model) for eight species and solely comprised top-ranking models for Baird's sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii), chestnut-collared longspur (Calcarius ornatus), horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), McCown's longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), and savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). Structural heterogeneity variables were present in top-ranked models for grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), and western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). Plant composition variables solely comprised top-ranking models for clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) and were present in top-ranked models for grasshopper sparrow and vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Our results indicate that vegetation structure variables, namely litter mass, vegetation volume, and bare ground cover, best explain variation in bird abundance. Although the rangeland health index received little support as a predictor of bird abundance, vegetation structure components of the index could be used to communicate grazing management guidelines that maintain grassland bird habitat.
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