Conserving prairies for chickens helps millions of songbirds too

New study evaluates how private lands enrolled in the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and the Conservation Reserve Program benefit songbirds.

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A new study done in partnership with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, CEAP Wildlife, and Playa Lakes Joint Venture as part of the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions Program, highlights population benefits for many species of songbirds that use prairie habitat alongside lesser prairie-chickens. The key take away from the study? Conservation practices contributed to an increase of 2.4 million songbirds across the region.

Grasshopper sparrow (Alan Schmierer), eastern meadowlark (John Sutton) and Cassin’s sparrow (Alan Schmierer) are some of the songbirds evaluated in the research. All three showed impressive population gains following the implementation of conservation practices through LPCI and CRP.

Healthy prairies are a vital resource for agricultural producers and wildlife. They provide a mix of grasses and forbs that supply protein-rich forage for livestock as well as habitat for numerous grassland birds like lesser prairie-chickens.

Unfortunately, in North America’s Great Plains, this asset is at risk from development, conversion to croplands, and other intensive land use practices that fragment or degrade our grasslands and prairies. Ninety-five percent of the land in the Southern Great Plains is privately owned, making voluntary conservation on private lands a key strategy in preserving and improving the prairie habitat that supports lesser prairie-chickens and dozens of other songbirds.

From 2015 to 2017, researchers monitored birds on ranches in CO, KS, OK, NM, and TX that had implemented conservation practices. The study compared avian population densities on private land enrolled in either the Conservation Reserve Program or that had established prescribed grazing plans through the USDA-NRCS’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative to reference grasslands in the region.

In total, the conservation practices contributed to improved regional abundance for:

  • 14 of 27 species of grassland generalists, 10 of which are declining
  • 10 of 13 species of grassland obligates, 7 of which are declining
  • Conservation-related population increases amounted to 2.4 MILLION MORE SONGBIRDS in the study area, including these species-specific gains:
    • 17% of the Cassin’s sparrow population
    • 21% of the eastern meadowlark population
    • 16% of the grasshopper sparrow population

Livestock grazing is compatible with maintaining healthy grasslands, as demonstrated by the variety and abundance of birds on well-managed ranch lands. ~  David Pavlacky, Research Ecologist, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, lead author on the study.


Key findings from the study:

  • In the southern Great Plains, several bird species that depend on healthy grasslands are in decline.
  • Researchers found that conservation practices contributed to improved regional abundance for 24 of the 40 grassland bird species studied, over half of which are in decline, amounting to 2.4 million more songbirds.
  • Ranches enrolled in prescribed grazing through the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative showed the greatest variety and abundance of grassland-dependent birds.

CRP grasslands, western Kansas. Photo: Megan Waechter.

Prior research has also shown that lesser prairie-chickens increase their use of grasslands following the implementation of prescribed grazing and other conservation practices promoted by LPCI.

Additionally, research commissioned by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, showed that lesser prairie-chicken populations expanded following a 2009-2012 drought in the Great Plains. Many of the population-level increases occurred on lands enrolled in LPCI and CRP conservation programs. While the rebound cannot be directly contributed to conservation practices implemented through LPCI or CRP, the birds did take advantage of restored habitat when it was available.

Taken together, these studies highlight how conserving lands for lesser prairie-chickens sets the stage for increased population levels of multiple bird species, including lesser prairie-chickens and songbirds, while also improving the productivity of grasslands for ranchers. That’s win-win conservation at its best.

<<Download the full Science to Solutions Report here>>