Technical Background

Kansas has the largest proportion of remaining Tallgrass Prairie of all the states in Bird Conservation Region 22 (17.4%)1. Eastern Tallgrass Prairie is a core habitat identified by the Kansas State Comprehensive Wildlife Plan for special emphasis.2 The largest remaining tracts of undisturbed Tallgrass Prairie are in the Flint Hills uplands, identified as a priority conservation region by KDWP. However, changes in agricultural practices over the past two decades have led to rapid declines in ground nesting birds and species dependent upon extensive tracts of native grasses. This has resulted in an urgent need to educate and encourage landowners in the Flint Hills to use BMP’s. Since the 1980’s there has been an increased frequency of pasture burning to accommodate a higher intensity of cattle grazing, along with the removal of shelterbelts, forbs and shrubby vegetation, and in some areas a conversion of native prairie to cropland or non-native grasses. These have all been identified as factors contributing significantly to the rapid decline of populations of upland birds. Grassland birds are considered by the National Audubon Society as one of the groups most in need of conservation, with population declines found for 23 of the 27 species for which there are data.3

The Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture identified Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) and Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) as landbirds of continental priority4 ; these species are included in the state’s Species of Greatest Conservation Need along with the Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus).5 All of these species will benefit from Best Management Practices that reduce burning from an annual cycle to a 2-3 year cycle, which will provide habitat containing tall stems for perching during displaying and foraging bouts for smaller species and thicker cover for nesting and refuge from predators and adverse weather. Lengthening the period between burns also helps to develop patches of forbs and forage species while still allowing for the control of woody vegetation. In addition, reducing the use of biocides will benefit all grassland birds. BMP’s specific to each of the focal bird species are discussed below. 

Ground nesting sparrows of the genus Ammodramus are in particular need of conservation; Henslow’s Sparrow, A. henslowii and Baird’s Sparrow, A. bairdii top the list for Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Kansas. The congener of these two species, the Grasshopper Sparrow A. savannarum is in Tier II.6  Baird’s Sparrow migrates through Kansas and may be impacted by availability of stopover habitat, while both Henslow’s Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrows breed in Kansas and are heavily impacted by the frequency and timing of burning, haying and grazing.7,8  Henslow’s Sparrow use sites characterized by high litter cover and dense grassy vegetation, conditions most commonly found in tallgrass prairie which has not been burned for two to three years; their need for large tracts (30 hectares or more) without woody vegetation makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation, contributing to an annual decline of 9% in their population size throughout their range.9,10  According to Jeff Keating, biologist for Ft. Riley Military Reservation, Henslow's Sparrow nests only in accumulated litter on the ground, and are usually only observed in fields that have standing dead vegetation. Fields that have been burned since the last growing season, or have been grazed heavily during or after the last growing season are expected to be unsuitable for Henslow's Sparrow the following year; in contrast, fields that were hayed or grazed early, then left idle, and unburned, may have sufficient late summer growth to allow Henslow's Sparrow to nest the next year (if unburned).11

Loggerhead Shrike are also being impacted by loss of habitat, although they may be heavily impacted by other factors as well. These birds were persecuted during the first half of the 20th century because of their habit of taking songbirds as prey. Although they are no longer actively hunted, the effects of organochlorines in the 1940’s through the 1970’s further reduced their populations; and today roadside spraying of herbicides, use of pesticides to control insect outbreaks, and habitat loss continue to reduce populations throughout their range.12  Loggerhead Shrike in Kansas prefer burned tallgrass prairie, burned tallgrass pasture and idle tallgrass with medium grass height and mixed patches of bare ground and forbs that provide a diversity of perch heights.13 Also called “butcher birds,” Loggerhead Shrike are famous for using Osage orange, honey locust and barbwire fences to impale prey. Shrikes are passerines, which means they have relatively weak feet compared to other predatory birds like hawks and owls. Impaling prey allows them to feed on large prey like grasshoppers, mice and birds, as well as to form food caches. Shrikes are sit and wait predators that forage from perches of different heights and they nest in dense vegetation in trees and tall shrubs. Because of their need for spiny vegetation to serve as cache sites, Loggerhead Shrike do best in habitats that include shelterbelts or patches of dense woody vegetation next to large patches of native prairie. In consequence, removal of shelterbelts has contributed to population declines in this species. Loggerhead Shrikes are also negatively impacted by practices that reduce their vertebrate and invertebrate prey, such as annual burning and use of biocides.14

Greater-Prairie Chickens have complex habitat needs with different aspects of their life history requiring several different habitat types in close proximity within a patchy landscape. For example, in some areas they may use open ground (lek sites), litter and residual growth in grasslands (nesting), burned, grazed or hayed pasture (brooding) and woody vegetation along cropland edges (roosting).15  Since the cessation of market hunting, most management efforts have been directed towards habitat improvement, especially manipulation of grazing pressure, changes in burning regimes, and the provision of thick vegetation to provide refuges from predators and adverse weather.16  There is now increasing concern over the impact on Greater Prairie-Chickens of roads, power lines, wind turbines, and other infrastructure construction that has been spurred by the development of wind farms. It appears that these structures may reduce nesting success and alter movement patterns, and this is an active area of research and development of management guidelines.17,18


2. Wasson, T., L. Yasui, K. Brunson, S. Amend, V Ebert. October 2005. A Future for Kansas Wildlife, Kansas' Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. Dynamic Solutions, Inc. in cooperation with Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. 170 pp.

3. Butcher et al.
4. Potter, B. A., G. J. Soulliere, D. N. Ewert, M. G. Knutson, W. E. Thogmartin, J. S. Castrale, and M. J. Roell. 2007. Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture Landbird Habitat Conservation Strategy. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fort Snelling, MN. 124pp.
5. Wasson et al.
6. Wasson et al.
7. Herkert, J.R. P.D. Vickery, and D.E. Kroodsma. 2002 Henslow’s Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii). In The Birds of North America, No. 672 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Phladelphia, PA.
 8. Vickery, P.D. 1996. Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum). In The Birds of North America, No. 239 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.) The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
9. Herkert et al.
10. Cully, J.F. ,JR. and H.L. Michaels. 2000. Henslow’s Sparrow habitat associations on Kansas tallgrass prairie. Wilson Bulletin 112: 115-123.

11. Personnel communication 24 March 2009 (email)

 12. Yosef, R. 1996. Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus). In The Birds of North America, No. 231 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
13.  Dechant, J. A., M. L. Sondreal, D. H. Johnson, L. D. Igl, C. M. Goldade, M. P. Nenneman, A. L. Zimmerman, and B. R. Euliss.  2003. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Loggerhead Shrike.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND.  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  (Version 12AUG2004).
14. Yosef; Dechant et al.
15. Schroeder, M.A. and L.A. Robb. 1993. Greater Prairie-Chicken. In The Birds of North America, No. 36 (A. Poole, P, Stettenheim, and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washintong, DC: The American Ornithologists’ Union.
16. Svedarsky, W.D., J.E. Toepfer, R.L. Westemeier, and R.J. Robel. 2003. Effects of management practices on grassland birds: Greater Prairie-Chicken. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, ND. 42 pages.

 17. Position of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Regarding Wind Power and Wildlife Issues in Kansas Updated: 2/27/09
18. Brett Sandercock and Samantha Wisely April 2008. EFFECTS OF WIND POWER ON THE DEMOGRAPHY AND POPULATION GENETICS OF THE GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN.  QUARTERLY REPORT  Submitted by: Avian Ecology Laboratory, Division of Biology, Kansas State University. Presented to: National Wind Coordinating Council Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.