Climate changes a bird’s life in shrinking grasslands

Back in graduate school, a couple of my grad student buddies and I would get together to fish for brown trout in the Kinnickinnic River in western Wisconsin.  We were students at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), but the Kinni was the closest trout stream.  Tired of catching small brown trout, we consulted a trout fishing map and discovered that the headwaters of the Kinni were rich in brook trout. So early one morning, map in hand, we followed strange paths and found our sacred brook trout haven. Alas, the only thing it was rich in was corn, now about two feet high – though there was a modest depression where trout waters once had flowed. Our personal depression was perhaps more than modest – having been robbed of brook trout, and the opportunity to experience some pristine waters flowing through a beautiful grassland.

Grasslands, one of the biomes native to parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota, are globally one of the most endangered biomes, because they usually are relatively easy to convert into farmland and suburban developments. Native grasslands harbor a wide biological diversity; consequently conservation biologists are concerned about their continued loss.


Cool-season grassland in southwest Wisconsin. Credit: John Dadisman.

Ben Zuckerberg, Christine Ribic and Lisa McCauley wanted to know how environmental factors influenced the nesting success of grassland birds, in particular, because as obligate ground nesters, they might be susceptible to changing  weather conditions that will be affecting the climate in coming decades.  A nest built on the ground is much less insulated from the environment than one built in or on a tree or even a ledge.

Bobolink 7 days (Carolyn Byers)

Seven day old bobolink chicks in a ground nest. Credit: Carolyn Byers.

Zuckerberg and his colleagues used Google Scholar and the ISI Web of Science to comb the literature (1982-2015) for studies that explored the nest success of obligate grassland birds in the United States. They identified 12 bird species from 81 individual studies of 21,000 nests. Based on their experience and the literature, both precipitation and temperature were likely to influence nest success, which is the proportion of nests that fledge at least one young. They considered three precipitation time periods: (1) Bioyear – previous July through April of the breeding season, (2) May of the breeding season, (3) June – August of the breeding season. They considered breeding season temperatures during May, and during the period from June-August. The researchers were also interested in the size of the grassland (grassland patch size), reasoning that a larger grassland might provide more diverse microclimates, so, for example, a bird might be able to find a dry microhabitat for nesting in a large grassland, even in a wet breeding season.


Map of the identity and location of species considered for this study.

The researchers discovered that both temperature and precipitation were important.  Nest success increased steadily with bioyear precipitation (Figure (a) below).  Presumably, more rain led to more plant growth and more insect survival, which would help feed the young.  Taller plants could also help shade or hide the nests. In contrast, nest success declined sharply with precipitation during spring and summer of the breeding season (Figure (b) and (c)). Heavy rains during the breeding season can flood nests, and also decrease the foraging efficiency of parents who might need to spend more time incubating nests during rainstorms. Lastly, extreme (low or high) May temperatures depressed nest success, which was highest at intermediate temperatures (Figure (d)). Egg viability depends on maintaining a constant temperature, and the parents may be more challenged to thermoregulate at extreme temperatures.  Temperatures later in the breeding season did not affect nest success.


Effects of (a) bioyear precipitation (previous July – April of the breeding season), (b) May precipitation during the breeding season, (c) June – August precipitation during the breeding season, and (d) May temperature on nest success. Shaded area represents 95% confidence interval.

But all is not straightforward in the grassland nest success world. These main findings about precipitation and temperature interacted with grassland size in interesting ways.  For example high bioyear precipitation, which overall increased nest success, only did so for smaller grassland patches (dashed line in top graph below), but not for larger patches (solid line).  Extreme May temperatures had different effects on nest success in relation to grassland patch size.  Low May temperatures were associated with high nest success in small patches (dashed line in bottom graph) and with low nest success in large patches (solid line).  High May temperatures were associated with high nest success in large patches, and with low nest success in small patches.


Predicted nest success of grassland birds in relation to bioyear precipitation (top graph) and May temperature (bottom graph) in relation to grassland patch size.  Solid lines represent large grasslands, while dashed lines represent small grasslands.  Shaded area is 95% confidence interval.

The researchers were surprised to discover that patch size affected how weather influenced grassland bird nesting success. Some of the patterns seem intuitively logical; for example, in unusually hot breeding seasons birds had higher nest success in larger grasslands than in smaller grasslands.  Presumably, birds were more likely to find a cooler microclimate for their nests in a large grassland.  However it is puzzling why in unusually cold breeding seasons birds had higher nest success in smaller grasslands. The researchers are planning a follow-up study to better document and measure the existence of microclimates in grasslands of different sizes, and explore how different microclimates influence the nesting success of vulnerable grassland birds.  Finding that warmer temperatures and drought generally reduce nest success to the greatest extent in small grassland patches is strong incentive for conservation mangers to establish large core grasslands as a tool to maintain bird populations in the wake of present and future changes to the climate.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Zuckerberg, B. , Ribic, C. A. and McCauley, L. A. (2018), Effects of temperature and precipitation on grassland bird nesting success as mediated by patch size. Conservation Biology, 32: 872-882. doi:10.1111/cobi.13089. Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.


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