Cattle grazing in CRP grasslands during the nesting season: Effects on avian reproduction
Jameson, Mary Liz
Reichenborn, Molly M.
Houseman, Gregory R.
Watson, E. Fraser
Kraus, Heather M.
Jensen, William E.
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Kraus, H. M., Jensen, W. E., Houseman, G. R., Jameson, M. L., Reichenborn, M. M., Watson, D. F., and Kjaer, E. L.. 2022. Cattle grazing in CRP grasslands during the nesting season: effects on avian reproduction. Journal of Wildlife Management 86:e22152. https://doi.org/10.1002/jwmg.22152
Bird populations in grasslands have experienced declines coinciding with loss and fragmentation of prairies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)‐administered Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is the most extensive grass-land restoration program in North America and it has especially benefitted grassland birds. Grazing by domestic cattle has been restricted in CRP during avian nesting seasons despite the potential improvements in structuring habitat for a greater diversity of grassland bird species. Potential negative con-sequences of grazing in CRP grasslands include trampling of nests by cattle, reductions in nest concealment from predators, and attraction of brood‐parasitic brown‐headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). We designed an experiment to test for effects of cattle grazing in CRP fields during the nesting season on nest survival and brood parasitism of 5 bird species that commonly nest in CRP grasslands: mourning dove (Zenaidamacroura), grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum),dickcissel (Spiza americana), and eastern (Sturnella magna) and western (S. neglecta) meadowlarks. Grazing was implemented during summers 2017 and 2018 on 17 of 36 fields followed by a year of rest on all fields in 2019. Of the 879 nests on grazed fields, only 4 were likely trampled by cattle (vs. 54% of all nests estimated as failing because of depredation). Experimental grazing (grazed vs. ungrazed fields) had variable effects on nest survival and cowbird parasitism among the bird species analyzed. Negative effects of grazing on daily nest survival of dickcissel and meadowlarks were apparent, at least in some years. We found no direct effects of grazing on nest survival of mourning dove or grasshopper sparrow. Probability and intensity(cowbird offspring/nest) of cowbird parasitism in dickcissel nests was higher on grazed versus ungrazed sites but only in conservation practice (CP) CP2 (vs. CP25 fields). Parasitism probability of grasshopper sparrow nests by cowbirds was higher on grazed fields in the 2 years after introduction of cattle in 2017. Greater vegetative concealment around nest sites was associated with reduced cowbird parasitism of meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow nests and higher nest survival for grasshopper sparrows. Reductions in vegetative height caused by longer‐term or high‐intensity grazing might therefore have negative consequences for some grassland birds by increasing nest site visibility and exposure to cowbird parasitism. Our results indicate that cattle grazing in CRP fields during the nesting season might have some negative effects on reproductive success of some grassland bird species, at least in the short term; however, the potential improvements of structuring habitat to accommodate more grass-land bird species and increasing landowner participation in the CRP are considerable.
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