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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: SEMIARID RANGELAND ECOSYSTEMS: THE CONSERVATION-PRODUCTION INTERFACE

Location: Rangeland Resources Research

Title: Associations of grassland bird communities with black-tailed praire dogs in the North American Great Plains

Authors
item Augustine, David
item Baker, Bruce -

Submitted to: Conservation Biology
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: November 19, 2012
Publication Date: January 22, 2013
Citation: Augustine, D.J., Baker, B. 2013. Associations of grassland bird communities with black-tailed praire dogs in the North American Great Plains. Conservation Biology. 27(2):324-334.

Interpretive Summary: Black-tailed prairie dogs can affect grassland and shrubland ecosystems by creating burrows, reducing vegetation height, serving as prey, and changing the distribution of different vegetation patches in the landscape. They can also serve a keystone species role by affecting other wildlife species that live in association with prairie dogs. In particular, black-tailed prairie dogs may have important effects on grassland birds in the North American Great Plains. We examined how black-tailed prairie dogs influence bird communities at 7 locations in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Vegetation found on prairie dog colonies was characterized by low grass cover, high exposure of bare soil, and low vegetation height and density. Prairie dog colonies at all sites supported a breeding bird community that differed from the surrounding grassland or shrubland. Bird communities on colonies were dominated by Burrowing Owls, Mountain Plovers, Killdeer, Horned Larks, and McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs. Bird communities off colonies were dominated by Grasshopper Sparrows, Lark Buntings, Vesper sparrows, and Lark Sparrows. Bird communities on prairie dog colonies included higher densities of several species of conservation concern. The way that prairie dogs affect vegetation appears to be important in providing habitat for a diverse suite of bird species in the northern Great Plains. Differences in grassland bird communities on and off colonies suggest that prairie dogs may influence associated bird and mammal species in many ways, including the creation of belowground refugia (burrows), serving as prey for specialized predators, modifying vegetation structure within colonies, and increasing landscape variation in vegetation structure.

Technical Abstract: Colonial, burrowing herbivores can serve as ecosystem engineers in grassland and shrubland ecosystems by creating belowground refugia, modifying vegetation structure and composition, serving as prey, and generating landscape heterogeneity. They can also serve a keystone species role by affecting the distribution and abundance of associated species. By serving both roles, black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) may have important effects on grassland birds in the North American Great Plains. We examined how black-tailed prairie dogs influence bird community composition for 7 prairie dog colony complexes in the northern Great Plains. The unique vegetation structure found on prairie dog colonies, characterized by low grass cover, high exposure of bare soil, and low vegetation height and density, supported a breeding bird community that differed substantially from the surrounding habitat matrix. Bird communities on colonies were characterized by significantly greater densities of large-bodied insectivores/carnivores (Burrowing owls, Athene cunicularia; Mountain Plovers, Charadrius montanus; Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus) and omnivores consisting of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) and longspurs (Rhynchophanes mccownii; Calcarius ornatus). Bird communities off colonies were dominated by small-bodied insectivorous sparrows (Ammodramus spp.) and omnivores consisting of Lark Buntings (Calamospiza melanocorys), Vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus) and Lark Sparrows (Chondestes grammacus). Bird communities on prairie dog colonies included significantly higher densities of several species of conservation concern. Vegetation modification by prairie dogs appears to be a key factor sustaining a diverse suite of bird species in these grasslands. Differences in grassland bird communities on and off colonies suggest that prairie dogs may influence vertebrate biodiversity through multiple pathways including creation of belowground refugia, serving as prey for specialized predators, modifying vegetation structure within colonies, and increasing landscape heterogeneity in vegetation structure.

Last Modified: 7/25/2014
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