Grassland Birds and Landscape Change in the Great Plains


The grasslands of the Great Plains extended from the Rocky Mountains north into Canada, south into Texas and east into Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri. The drier western plains supported short grass prairie while the wetter eastern areas supported the famous tall grass prairies.

Most of the Great Plains has been converted to agriculture and less than 1 percent of the prairies remain. However both government and non governmental agencies are now working to restore at least some of the prairie ecosystems that were once the dominant feature of North America.

Agriculture has long since changed the face of the prairies, but recently trees have become more of a presence on the prairies as well, primarily because humans have removed fire from the ecosystem. Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, is native to the East but is now established throughout the wetter parts of the Great Plains including Oklahoma, north Texas, and Kansas.

Biologists and birders have noticed that birds that used to live only in the East are now showing up in the West: Blue Jays are now up to the front range of the Rockies, and the barred owl has moved in on the territories of the northern spotted owl throughout the Pacific Northwest. It is thought that eastern birds are taking advantage of human-caused changes in the landscape to move west. Bird communities in the grasslands are changing as the vegetative structure of the prairies have changed to include more trees. Open habitat generalist, woodland, and successional scrub associated bird species have increased in prairie remnants whereas many grassland species have decreased.

We spoke with David Engle about the changes that are occurring in what remains of the Great Plains.

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