Nesting biology of three grassland passerines in the northern tallgrass prairie

Maiken Winter, Douglas H. Johnson, Jill A. Shaffer, W D Svedarsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Basic nesting information on grassland passerines is needed for improving grassland bird management. Among the information needs are (1) the suitability of nesting habitat, (2) periods during the breeding season in which birds are most vulnerable to disturbances, and (3) how to fit grasslands into a prioritization scheme for conservation. Comparisons of nesting parameters among grassland species will help identify important management considerations. We describe and compare nest-site characteristics, nesting phenology, clutch size, hatching and fledging success, and brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) for three grassland passerine species nesting in tallgrass prairie of northwestern Minnesota and southeastern North Dakota. During 1998-2002, we found 793 Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida), 687 Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), and 315 Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) nests. These species differed in many aspects of their breeding ecology. Clay-colored and Savannah sparrows initiated their nests almost 2 weeks earlier than Bobolinks, with peak nesting occurring in June. Clutch size was lower (3.77 ± 0.03 SE) for Clay-colored Sparrows than Savannah Sparrows (4.13 ± 0.05) and Bobolinks (5.25 ± 0.08). The number of host eggs hatched per nest was higher in Bobolinks (3.46 ± 0.20) than in Clay-colored Sparrows (2.52 ± 0.09) and Savannah Sparrows (2.41 ± 0.11), but the number of young fledged per Bobolink nest (1.97) was similar to that of Savannah Sparrows (2.01). Clay-colored Sparrows fledged only 1.35 host young per nest. Mayfield nest success was higher for Savannah Sparrows (31.4%) than for Clay-colored Sparrows (27.4%) or Bobolinks (20.7%). The main cause of nest failure was nest predation: predation in Clay-colored Sparrows (47.9%) was higher than in Savannah Sparrows (33.5%) but similar to Bobolinks (41.8%). Brood parasitism was lower in Clay-colored Sparrows (5.1%) than in Bobolinks (10.8%), and intermediate (6.7%) in Savannah Sparrows. Compared with most other studies, grassland bird nests in our study area were more successful and less frequently parasitized; thus, northwestern Minnesota and southeastern North Dakota appear to provide important breeding habitat for grassland birds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-223
Number of pages13
JournalWilson Bulletin
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2004


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