Grassland bird populations in North America continue to decline according to count and vital-rate data, highlighting the importance of remaining grasslands. Conservation efforts may be enhanced by understanding fledgling habitat preference and survival in relation to age and ambient temperature. We radio-tracked 46 Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) fledglings in 2006 and 2007 to evaluate variation in habitat preference and survival in subirrigated meadows of the Nebraska Sandhills, one of North America’s largest contiguous grassland systems. Our research indicates that habitat preference varied with fledgling age and ambient temperature: at higher ambient temperatures, fledglings tended to select sites with deeper litter and shorter vegetation, while younger, mostly flightless fledglings tended to select sites with shallower litter and taller vegetation. We confirmed 23 fatalities, including 8 (35%) from predators, 2 (9%) from haying operations, and 13 (56%) from unknown causes. Seven of the eight (88%) depredated fledglings were tracked to live snakes, including six bullsnakes (Pituophis catenifer sayi). The probability of daily survival (0.981) was high compared to estimates for passerine fledglings in other grassland systems. Survival increased with age and ambient temperature but decreased with litter depth. Prior research indicates prescribed burning can decrease litter depth and associated abundance of snakes in grasslands, but neither are likely conservation strategies in subirrigated meadows of the Nebraska Sandhills, because hay production provides winter feed for cattle. We recommend maintaining mid to late summer hay harvest so first cohorts of nestlings can fledge, attain flight, and evade machinery.
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Vol. 127 • No. 2