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Fire is for the birds in northern mixed-grass prairie

Author(s): Marjie Brown
Year Published: 2008

Roughly 25,000 acres of grassland in the National Wildlife Refuges of North Dakota and eastern Montana are treated every year with prescribed fire, mostly on northern mixed-grass prairie. Although this shrinking ecosystem is fire-adapted, there have been very few studies of the effects of prescribed fire on wildlife, introduced and native plants, and wildlife-habitat relationships in this delicate ecosystem. For this project, researchers documented short- and long-term fire effects on abundance, productivity, nest site selection and nest predation in migratory birds, especially grassland songbirds. They also measured the impacts of encroaching woody shrubs and trees on breeding populations of common bird species and the manner in which the historic fire regime has shaped the type, distribution and structure of vegetation. Results indicate that native bird species are generally well adapted to frequent fires. Any loss of breeding habitat in the first post-fire season is more than made up for by the subsequent renewal of grasses and reduction in fuel loads. Nest predation appears to be short term. Lack of periodic disturbance by fire and grazing has allowed encroachment by trees, tall shrubs and invasive grasses, negatively impacting songbird breeding success and survival of native grasses. Informed use of prescribed fire enhances nesting success and abundance of grassland birds, sustains the native vegetation they require, and is essential for perpetuation of threatened northern mixed-grass prairie landscapes. This brief includes a Manager's Viewpoint by Kim Hanson and a second Manager's Viewpoint by Sandra Uecker.

Citation: Brown, Marjie. 2008. Fire is for the birds in northern mixed-grass prairie. Joint Fire Science Program Fire Science Brief. June 2008(9): 1-12.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Wildlife, Fire & Wildlife, Birds, Birds of Prey, Game birds, Passerine birds, Sage-grouse
Ecosystem(s): Lower montane/foothills/valley grassland
Document Type: Research Brief or Fact Sheet
NRFSN number: 11082
FRAMES RCS number: 7938
Record updated: Mar 13, 2018