Sharing Your Land with Prairie Wildlife

Sharing Your Land with Prairie Wildlife
Sharing Your
Land with
Scott W. Gillihan, David J. Hanni, Scott W. Hutchings, Tony Leukering,
Ted Toombs, and Tammy VerCauteren
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Sharing Your Land with
Prairie Wildlife
14500 Lark Bunting
Brighton, CO 80603
(303) 659-4348
Scott W. Gillihan, David J. Hanni, Scott W. Hutchings, Tony Leukering, Ted Toombs, and Tammy
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
About the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO): Our mission is to conserve Rocky Mountain,
Great Plains, and Intermountain West birds and their habitats through research, monitoring, education,
and outreach. We conduct on-the-ground conservation in cooperation with other private organizations
and government agencies responsible for managing areas and programs important for birds. We also
work with private landowners and managers to encourage practices that foster good land stewardship.
Much of our work is designed to increase understanding of birds and their habitats by educating children,
teachers, natural resource managers, and the general public. Because birds do not recognize political
boundaries, and may even spend most of their lives outside of the United States, RMBO works to bring
a unified approach to conservation among states and countries, and many of our projects focus on issues
associated with winter grounds, especially those in Mexico. At the core of our conservation work is bird
population monitoring. Only through long-term monitoring can we identify which species are in need of
help, and evaluate our success at protecting or recovering them.
About this manual: This third edition of this manual (formerly entitled Sharing Your Land With Shortgrass
Prairie Birds) is about how to help birds and other wildlife make a living from the land while you do the
same. Prairie wildlife species have gone about their business of reproducing, feeding, mating, and dying
for thousands and thousands of years. They continue to live out their lives all around you, on land you
provide. However, the populations of some birds and other wildlife species are declining, for reasons
that are not clear. A little assistance from you can help keep declining wildlife populations on the land,
along with maintaining the more common species. This manual offers information about what these species need and how you can provide for those needs on your land.
Although the focus of this third edition is still the shortgrass prairie, it includes information on species
found in other parts of the Great Plains, and most of the concepts presented are applicable to grasslands
beyond the shortgrass prairie. Also, while we have added discussions of five species that are not birds,
we have retained the introductory material from previous editions when birds were the focus. The manual begins with some basic information about the shortgrass prairie and about bird biology. It goes on to
present general management guidelines, followed by more specific guidelines for some prairie birds and
other wildlife in need of conservation. This is followed by information about agencies and organizations
that can help you with technical and financial assistance. Finally, three appendices provide information on
simple structures, techniques, and equipment modifications that can benefit birds and other wildlife.
We hope you’ll find this information useful. Please contact us with questions or comments about the
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
A Short History of Shortgrass
The shortgrass prairie lies along the eastern edge of the
Rocky Mountains, from New Mexico north to Alberta,
Canada. Storm fronts traveling east across the continent
from the Pacific Ocean lose their moisture as they climb
over the Rockies, and the resulting rain shadow creates
the driest conditions found on the Great Plains. These
semi-arid conditions support only limited plant growth,
and the ankle-high vegetation of the shortgrass prairie
is the result. Traveling east, precipitation increases,
and shortgrass gives way to the taller mixed-grass and
tallgrass prairies. Shortgrass prairie is dominated by
two low-growing warm-season grasses, blue grama
and buffalograss; western wheatgrass is also present,
along with prickly-pear, yucca, winterfat, and cholla.
Sandsage prairie is found where sandy soils occur, and is
dominated by sand sagebrush and grasses such as sand
bluestem and prairie sand-reed. Pockets of mixedgrass prairie (including needle-and-thread and side-oats
grama) and tallgrass prairie (including big bluestem, little
bluestem, and switchgrass) are found where moisture is
adequate, typically in low-lying areas.
The shortgrass prairie landscape has been shaped
over time by the forces of climate, grazing, and
fire. Precipitation, for example, is lower and more
unpredictable than in either the mixed-grass or tallgrass
prairies. Droughts are not uncommon, and vegetation
growth is variable from year to year. Before widespread
settlement by European-Americans, a major grazing
force came from the expanding, contracting, and
shifting prairie dog colonies. Herds of bison, pronghorn,
and elk wandered widely but at times concentrated in
small areas, so the impact of their grazing and trampling
was spread unevenly over the landscape. The result
of such animal activities was that, at any given time,
some areas were grazed intensively and others not at
all, creating a diversity of habitat conditions across the
landscape. Little is known about the ecological role of
fire in shortgrass, although fires were probably never
very frequent because of the lack of dense grass as
fuel. Humans have used fire as a management tool in
shortgrass to improve grazing conditions for livestock
by removing woody vegetation, cacti, and accumulated
litter. However, the grasses recover slowly, requiring
2–3 years.
Shortgrass prairie birds breed and winter throughout the crosshatched areas
Because of the forces of fire, grazing, and climate,
shortgrass prairie birds historically had access to a
patchwork of vegetation in a variety of growth stages
and conditions. Each bird species could move about
the prairie until it found the habitats most suitable
for its nesting and foraging. Ideally, modern prairie
management would continue to create this patchwork
of vegetation by duplicating the timing, intensity, and
landscape distribution of the natural forces that shaped
the prairie. However, the primary management activity
on native shortgrass prairie today, livestock grazing,
tends to spread out its effects evenly, resulting in a
landscape that varies little from one area to another.
The patches of habitat are very similar in vegetative
growth and condition. Shortgrass birds no longer
have access to the variety of habitats that they had
historically, and it is increasingly difficult for some
species to find the particular habitat conditions that
meet their needs.
A tradition of stewardship—
During the 1800s, the U.S. government gave much of
the Great Plains grasslands to homesteaders and the
railroads (who eventually sold much of it to individuals)
to encourage westward expansion. Those landowners
plowed, planted, and ran cattle on the prairie. Today,
about 70% of the shortgrass prairie remains in private
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
ownership. Landowners in the shortgrass region have
a long tradition of careful and effective management of
the land (stewardship), a necessity in a dry region where
so little vegetation grows. Careful stewardship includes
maintaining healthy ecosystems upon which livestock,
wildlife, and humans depend. As a landowner, you live
close to the land, and recognize that abusing it reduces
its productivity. Land that is less productive is less
profitable. And because abused land affects not only the
current owners but future generations, you nurture it
to leave a lasting legacy of healthy land.
Because of the semi-arid climate and low human
population density, less of the shortgrass prairie has
been altered than either the mixed-grass or tallgrass
prairies. Less than 50% of the original shortgrass
prairie has been converted to other land-cover types.
By comparison, cropland and other land-cover types
now cover about 98% of the original tallgrass prairie.
As prairie is lost, so are the plants and animals that are
adapted to it. Prominent among the animals that are
declining are some species of prairie birds.
Bird conservation—
Together, the shortgrass, mixed-grass, and tallgrass
prairies cover about one-fifth of North America. In
spite of their large size, the prairies support a bird
community with few members. Only nine bird species
are restricted to the Great Plains (eight of the nine
are covered in this publication), and only 20 others
are closely linked with it. These 29 species are a
small fraction of the approximately 650 bird species
that breed in North America north of Mexico. Such
a small group of birds is easily overlooked, especially
in comparison with the more numerous and colorful
species of forested lands.
As a result, population declines among shortgrass bird
species have been largely overlooked until recently. Part
of this neglect was due to widespread concern about
well-publicized population declines among birds of
eastern forests. However, grassland birds are now the
highest conservation priority—among North American
birds, they have shown the steepest population declines
of any group. With 70% of shortgrass prairie habitat
in private ownership, assistance from landowners is
critical to prairie bird conservation.
Basic Bird Biology
Some birds eat fruits, some eat seeds, and some eat
animals, but most birds eat insects. Even some species
that rarely consume insects will eat them during the
breeding season for the protein and calcium they
provide. Both nutrients are necessary for producing
eggs. Some young birds are fed only insects to help
them grow and develop. Even hummingbirds eat
spiders and insects, contrary to the common belief
that they eat only nectar. The number of insects that
a bird can eat is impressive. A biologist once found a
Swainson’s Hawk in Kansas with 98 crickets in its crop
and another 132 in its stomach. Other Swainson’s
Hawks have been found with 40–50 grasshoppers in
their stomachs. Although birds usually cannot control
large insect outbreaks after they have begun, under
normal conditions they can suppress the numbers of
insects, keeping them below the outbreak levels that
require more active control by landowners.
Birds of prey (raptors) take their toll on rodents—a
Sharing Your Land with Prairie Wildlife
large hawk or owl can eat over a thousand mice and
voles per year, adding up to many thousands over the
course of its lifetime. A pair of Ferruginous Hawks
will kill about 500 ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and
other rodents each summer to feed themselves and
their young. Such natural controls on insect and rodent
populations are of great economic value to landowners.
One of the things that separates birds from mammals
is the fact that birds lay eggs. Bird eggs exhibit
tremendous variation in size, shape, and color,
depending on the species and where it lives. They range
in size from the pea-sized eggs of hummingbirds to the
apple-sized eggs of cranes. Egg shape varies greatly, too.
For example, birds that make their nests in tree cavities
usually lay eggs that are nearly spherical, while those
that nest on narrow cliff ledges lay eggs that are very
pointed on one end. For cavity-nesting species, easyrolling spherical eggs are not a problem, since the cavity
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
is deep and the eggs cannot roll out. The pointed eggs
of ledge-nesting species, however, roll around in a tight
circle, so they are less likely to roll off the ledge. Egg
color varies, too, with cavity-nesting birds producing
all-white eggs while birds that nest in the open, such
as shorebirds, lay eggs that are heavily streaked and
spotted with various shades of brown, black, purple, or
green creating excellent camouflage.
Bird nests are quite variable, too. Some species simply
scrape out a shallow bowl on the ground. Other species
build elaborate structures each year, such as the hanging
pouch nests of orioles. Others just keep adding material
to the same nest year after year, such as many hawks
and eagles. One eagle nest used for many years was
10 feet across and weighed 2000 pounds! The purpose
of the nest is to hold the eggs during incubation.
Incubating adults keep the eggs warm and roll them
over occasionally, to ensure proper development of the
embryos. Once hatched, the young birds stay in the
nest until they grow and develop to where they can
move about on their own. For some birds that hatch in
a highly developed form, the stay in the nest lasts only
a day or so. As soon as these birds dry off and their
feathers fluff, they are ready to follow their parents
around on the ground (learning to fly comes later). This
is common for shorebirds and other species that nest
in exposed areas, where squirming, helpless nestlings
would make easy prey for predators. For other
species, the nestling stage lasts for weeks. The young of
these species hatch in a very undeveloped form, with
unopened eyes and few feathers. They are completely
dependent on their parents adult for warmth and food.
Different bird species respond to the
changing seasons differently, depending
on their food requirements. Birds that
eat insects or fish, which are not as
easy to find in the winter, migrate to
warmer areas in the southern U.S.,
the Caribbean, or Central and South
America. Some bird species remain on
their breeding grounds year-round.
These resident birds are usually those that eat seeds,
which are still available during the winter. Some birds
that eat other birds or small mammals migrate south for
the winter, but they may travel shorter distances than
the insect-eaters. Some birds of mountainous areas may
move down to lower elevations, including the prairie,
to spend the winter.
For many years, scientists believed that North
American birds flew south for the winter to avoid the
cold and snow. However, recent research has suggested
that many North American birds actually originated
in the tropics, in Central and South America. They fly
north to take advantage of abundant food and nest
sites during the breeding season, then return to their
southern homes to spend the rest of the year. Many
species that we think of as “our” birds actually spend
the greater part of each year elsewhere.
While migrating, some birds get blown off-course,
or wander outside of their normal range in search of
new areas. As a result, individual birds may show up
hundreds or even thousands of miles from the species’
usual breeding or wintering areas. Sometimes these
individuals find that the new areas suit their needs, and
they may colonize these areas. One example is the
Cattle Egret. This species was originally found only in
Africa, but some wandering individuals managed to
cross the Atlantic Ocean and colonize South America in
the late 1800s. From that original foothold, the species
has spread into most of North America, including the
Great Plains.
Unlike the colorful reds, yellows, and blues worn by
many forest birds, grassland birds are mostly
brown. Such drab coloration is needed as
camouflage. Blending in with the background is
critical for grassland birds, which spend much
of their time foraging or nesting on the
ground where they are more vulnerable
to predators.
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
An animal’s habitat is the place that provides all that the
animal needs to survive and reproduce. For a bird, this
means food, water, and nest area (during the breeding
• Food is an obvious need, essential for the survival
of all organisms. What is not so obvious is that birds
may require large areas in which to find enough food.
This is especially true for hawks and other large birds
with widely scattered food supplies.
• Water is also an obvious need, although many
birds of the shortgrass prairie do not need access to
open water for drinking or bathing. They eat moisturerich foods and “bathe” in fine prairie dust that absorbs
excess oils from their feathers.
• Nest area is the nest site itself (for example,
a clump of grass) and the area around the nest site.
This is the area needed by the bird for gathering nest
materials and enough food to feed itself and its growing
Each species is adapted to a particular habitat, and to
the features of that habitat, such as the climate, foods,
vegetation, and so on. Birds choose a particular site to
breed or spend the winter based on the suitability of
the habitat. They judge the habitat at several geographic
scales. First, at the widest scale, the site must be within
a broad geographic area that has the proper climate—a
bird of cool, rainy coastal areas of the Northwest
might have a difficult time adjusting to the hot, dry
Great Plains. Second, at a smaller geographic scale, the
site must contain the proper vegetation type—a bird
accustomed to finding food and nest sites in dense,
mature pine forests of the Rocky Mountains might
not survive long among the low grasses and sparse
shrubs of the shortgrass prairie. Third, at an even
smaller geographic scale, the site must contain habitat
elements in the particular arrangement that suits the
species’ needs—for example, some species require
large pastures of closely cropped grasses, while others
require a mix of tall grasses and wetlands. Finally, the
site must include the specific features that the species
requires at a very fine scale—for example, a dry hilltop
with patchy grasses for a nest site. Birds will only settle
in an area if it meets their habitat needs at all of these
geographic scales.
Birds and a healthy
Aldo Leopold, considered to be the father of modern
wildlife management, said, “To keep every cog and
wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Birds are integral parts of the prairie mechanism, and
they are essential for its proper function. They help
control insects and rodents, disperse seeds, eat carrion
(dead animals), and serve as food for other animals.
Scientists are continually gaining new information about
how birds fit into their habitats and how they affect
the lives of other organisms. When a species is missing
because its habitat needs are not met, its function as a
cog or wheel in the prairie mechanism is missing. But
when all the parts are present, the prairie “machine”
hums along smoothly. Because of their importance in
smooth system operations, healthy populations of birds
indicate a healthy environment. Also, because bird
habitat overlaps with habitat for other wildlife species,
preserving bird habitat ensures the preservation of
homes for many other animals, all of which are essential
for a healthy prairie. Finally, healthy wildlife habitat is
also a good indicator of good range conditions.
How to Use this Manual
Not all of these birds will be on your land. The first
step is to determine which species are present or
could be present if the right habitat conditions were
available. Compile a list of the birds present with the
help of a local birdwatcher, biologist, or Prairie Partners
representative. Or look over the maps in the following
pages and decide which species could potentially be on
your land, based on their distributions. Then, for each
of those species, read through the habitat information
to find out which ones might be able to find suitable
homes on your land, given the kind of habitat they
Sharing Your Land with Prairie Wildlife
need and the kind of habitat your land can provide.
Follow the guidelines and manage the land to provide
the necessary habitat conditions. In some cases,
the management recommendations for one species
contradict the recommendations for another species.
If both species are on your land, follow both sets of
recommendations but in different areas, or consult
with local bird experts to determine which species is a
higher conservation priority in your area, and follow the
recommendations for that species.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
General management
Here are some general guidelines for enhancing bird
habitat on your land. Keep in mind that these are just
recommendations—they are not rules or regulations,
just suggestions. Feel free to follow as few or as many
as you like. The more you follow, the more birds your
land will support.
• Conserve native prairie and the native flora and
fauna. Once native prairie is plowed, it requires decades
for a similar plant community to return. Controlled
livestock grazing in planned regions is one of the most
sustainable uses of native prairie. Other options are
available that preserve native prairie while diversifying
your ranching business (Prairie Partners can help you
with this).
• Manage grazing so that your pastures reflect
various intensities of grazing, ranging from light to
heavy. This will leave a variety of amounts of residual
cover and create habitat for a greater diversity of
birds. For bird species that require taller grass cover
for nesting, try to have some pastures lightly grazed or
ungrazed through the winter so that when birds return
in spring, they have taller cover for nesting. This pasture
can then be grazed again after the birds have completed
their nesting cycle, usually by August.
• Manage pastures and other grassland parcels as
large units, rather than as many small units. Many bird
species are more attracted to large grassland patches
than small isolated ones. Some scientists consider
125 acres to be the minimum parcel size needed by
a breeding pair of grassland birds, thus the larger the
tract provided the greater the number of birds it will
• Schedule any haying, plowing, burning, or heavy
grazing in the spring before the nesting season (April
to late July), or after the nesting season (after at least
mid-July) — such activities during the nesting season
can disrupt breeding activities, destroy nests, or expose
nests and birds to predators.
• Use a flush bar, flush chain, or similar device
attached to the swather of the mowing machine if you
must mow while birds are nesting, usually before midJuly. These tools will cause a bird to “flush” in front of
the mower and are most effective when operating at
less than top speed (Appendix A).
• Do not mow at night, when birds are on their
• Burn shortgrass prairie every 8–10 years, an
interval that is approximately equal to the historic
• Mow or burn uncultivated areas in rotation,
leaving some areas uncut and unburned each year.
• Install escape ladders in watering troughs so that
birds and other small animals can climb out (Appendix
• Manage croplands under a conservation tillage
system (no-till or minimum tillage), which can provide
crop residue that acts as cover for birds, their nests,
and their prey, resulting in higher nest success than in
either conventional or organic farms. Delay first tillage
until at least late June (mid-July would be even better)
to avoid destroying nests.
• Apply Integrated Pest Management practices
(IPM), including alternatives to chemical control of
insects, to preserve the food supply for insect-eating
birds. If chemical controls are necessary, use pesticides
that degrade rapidly. Contact your extension service for
more information about IPM.
• Protect agricultural land from grasshopper
damage by using a bait line only along the boundary
between agricultural and range land.
• Reseed with native species—if you have land
enrolled in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), use
native shortgrass species. Birds have a long history with
specific plants and plant communities and are more
likely to breed successfully and overwinter where the
plants are natives.
• Control non-native plant species, emphasizing
early detection, controlling spread, and facilitating recolonization by native plants.
• If you plan to change your management scheme,
please refer to our Assistance Programs section in
this manual to identify programs that are available to
provide technical and financial assistance.
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Plains Topminnow
Plains Topminnow (Fundulus sciadicus)
Identification: A small fish, about 2.5” long, the Plains
Topminnow has rounded anal and dorsal (back) fins
set far back on the relatively long body and a distinct
snout that tapers upward. The male’s thin white to
yellow stripe along the top edge of the powder blue
body is distinctive, as is the variably-red edgings to the
fins. Females are olive-colored or grayish above with
a cream-colored belly, with some sporting a red spot
between the gills and the caudal (side) fin.
Habitat: Plains Topminnow prefers areas of clear,
slow water with abundant filament-like algae growth,
specifically, quiet pools of small perennial creeks and
backwaters of larger streams. Individuals have also
been found in ponds unconnected to streams, probably
as a result of human introduction.
Natural history: This species typically occurs singly or
in small groups near the surface or in shallower, nearshore waters, presumably to avoid predation by larger
fishes. Little is known of the natural feeding habits of
Plains Topminnow, though it is assumed to be
omnivorous, eating insects and insect larvae, as
well as algae. It has been kept successfully in
aquaria on a diet of massmarket Tetra food and
brine shrimp.
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Eggs: Females lay their small (about 1 mm) clear eggs
as singles or chains on fine-leaved plants or algae, and
are most successful in waters of 71-75°F (22-24°C).
Did you know? The courtship of the Plains Topminnow
is an involved ritual, with tandem swimming and
S-shaped movements and with the red areas on the
male’s fins intensifying in color.
Conservation need: The historic alteration of Great
Plains stream flows, particularly with the channelization
of larger streams and rivers, has caused a decline in the
availability of habitat for Plains Topminnow. Coincident
with habitat decline has been a decline in the fish’s
populations, with many local extinctions. Runoff
from urban areas and agriculture negatively impact
populations due to the excessive particle loads that
cloud normally clear water.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Minimize livestock access to backwaters and
slow stretches of creeks and streams, particularly MayJuly before eggs hatch, by providing alternate water
sources for livestock. Livestock use of these areas alters
Plains Topminnow habitat by muddying the water and
removing plants that shade the water and regulate its
• Create or enhance backwaters.
• Remove or control the non-native Bullfrog (Rana
catesbiana), which preys on small native fishes.
• Avoid introducing mosquitofish (sometimes
introduced to control mosquitoes) into waters
containing Plains Topminnow.
• Avoid applying herbicides or pesticides upstream
of, or in the drainage areas hosting, backwaters and
slow-moving stretches of streams.
Plains Topminnow Distribution
Associated species:
Other species that may benefit from habitat
management for Plains Topminnow include Northern
Leopard Frog, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Belted
Kingfisher, and Common Yellowthroat.
Plains Topminnow
Plains Topminnow Diet
Invertebrates (crustaceans, snails, insect larvae) 75%
Algae 25%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Great Plains Toad
Great Plains Toad (Bufo cognatus)
Identification: This medium-sized toad (up to 4” long)
is identified by the white or cream borders to the large
dark patches on the back. The belly lacks dark spots.
The ridges between the eyes (cranial crests) extend
from behind the eyes to meet near the snout (the
crests on the similar-appearing Canadian Toad (Bufo
hemiophrys) do not extend behind the eyes).
Habitat: Great Plains toads typically occupy grasslands
in sandy or loose-soil areas. They breed in temporary,
clear, shallow pools, usually with considerable
vegetation emerging from the water. Such sites are
often created by spring runoff or heavy rain and
include flooded fields, ditches, and playas (which are
depressions that fill with water after rainfall). Some
permanent or semi-permanent water bodies are used
and these may be critical to the species in times of
drought. Clear water is also critical, as Great Plains
Toads will apparently not breed in muddy or cloudy
Natural history: The species is primarily nocturnal
(active at night), spending summer days camouflaged
on the ground surface or holed up in burrows,
particularly during periods of high heat or cold.
Individuals hibernate winter away in burrows dug to
below the frost line. Great Plains Toads subsist almost
wholly on insects (particularly beetles and ants) and
other arthropods (such as spiders). Few species prey
on these toads­­—like many toad species, they have
glands that produce substances distasteful to birds and
mammals (though Raccoons and skunks can avoid those
glands). Hognose Snakes, however, seem to have a
particular affinity for these toads. The unusually long
life (at least 10 and up to, perhaps, 20 years) is probably
an adaptation to allow the species to survive multi-year
droughts when appropriate breeding pools are scarce.
Eggs: about 9,400 (range of 1,300 to 45,000), laid in
long strings by a single female, attached to debris at
bottom of pools of water
Did you know? When threatened by
predators, individuals will, with a deep
breath, puff themselves up, lower
their heads, and extend all four legs,
apparently to make themselves
difficult to handle.
Conservation need: Great
Plains Toad populations have
declined since European
settlement, probably
due, at least in part, to
conversion of grasslands
to agriculture.
Filling, draining,
and alteration of
temporary pools of
water, including playa
wetlands, have probably
also contributed to the
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Preserve low-lying areas that catch
rain or runoff and that form pools of
• Avoid pitting (or deepening) playas
or other low-lying wetlands—deep pools
are less beneficial to toads and other
shallow-water wetland-dependent species.
• Fill pitted playas and restore native
• Fence off all or part of playas or
other wetlands with emergent vegetation
to protect eggs, tadpoles, and adults from
trampling by livestock, and to maintain
water clarity.
• Avoid applying herbicides or
pesticides upstream of, or in the drainage
areas hosting ephemeral pools.
Great Plains Toad Distribution
Associated species:
Other species that depend on areas
occupied by Great Plains Toad include
Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Lark
Bunting, Baird’s Sparrow, McCown’s and
Chestnut-collared longspurs, and Ord’s
Great Plains Toad
Great Plains Toad Summer Diet
Insects, spiders, other arthropods 100%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Greater Short-horned Lizard
Greater Short-horned Lizard
(Phrynosoma hernandezi)
Identification: A medium-sized horned lizard, Greater
Short-horned Lizard is around 4” in length (snout to
tail tip), but can grow to about 6”. It has very short
“horns” on the back of its head. The animal’s sides are
each adorned by a single row of spines. In the southern
Great Plains and southern Rockies, the large, dark spots
on the back are edged with white or pale, while in
the northern and central Great Plains, these spots are
typically not so edged.
Habitat: The species occupies a large array of habitats
in its relatively expansive range, from grasslands and
sage shrublands to open Ponderosa Pine forest, ranging
uphill to 9000 feet in places. It prefers areas with at
least some loose or sandy soil.
Natural history: Horned lizards are specialist ant
predators, though they do take other insects (such as
beetles) and arthropods, like spiders and sowbugs.
Greater Short-horned Lizards hibernate during winter
under the soil or in rodent burrows and can spend the
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hotter summer periods dormant in similar situations.
Individuals fall prey to a large number of other
predators, such as other lizards, snakes, hawks, Greater
Roadrunners, and Burrowing Owls.
Litters: Unlike most lizards (even some other horned
lizard species), Greater Short-horned Lizards bear live
young (3-36 per litter).
Did you know? When threatened by predators, horned
lizards can squirt a stream of blood from the corners
of their eyes at the eyes and mouth of the predator,
though this is probably a last-ditch effort to avoid being
Conservation need: The species is highly susceptible
to habitat loss and degradation, particularly that of
urbanization, intensive agriculture, and, in places,
intensive off-road vehicle use. Cattle grazing is
generally compatible with Greater Short-horned
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Conserve native grassland.
• In southern areas where fire ant control is
necessary, use spot treatments rather than broadcast
application of insecticides to avoid eliminating other
species of ants.
• Avoid prolonged, high-impact use of off-road
• Control non-native plants, including cheatgrass,
which may restrict the movements of the lizards.
• In areas where substantial amounts of ground
litter accumulate, remove the litter by burning pastures
on a rotational basis.
Greater Short-horned Lizard Distribution
Associated species:
Other species that depend on areas occupied by
Greater Short-horned Lizard include Swainson’s and
Ferruginous Hawks, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead
Shrike, Lark Bunting, McCown’s and Chestnut-collared
Longspurs, Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat, and Swift Fox.
Greater Short-horned Lizard Habitat
Greater Short-horned Lizard Diet
Insects, spiders, other arthropods 100%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Greater Prairie-Chicken
Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus
Identification: A medium-sized grouse, the Greater
Prairie-Chicken has whitish underparts strongly barred
with dark brown. Males are larger than females, have
all-dark tails, sport long tufts of feathers that are erected
in display but trail behind the head otherwise, and have
orange air sacs on the sides of their necks that they inflate
during display and which amplify their distinctive low
booming. Females’ tails are paler with dark bars and their
crowns are barred.
Habitat: The species originally used native grassland with
a mixture of shrubs and/or low-stature trees, particularly
oaks. Currently, much of the species’ population utilizes
grassland without the woody component and, at times,
interspersed with agriculture. In the western reaches of
the range (historic and current), sage, particularly Sandsage (Artemesia latifolia), provided the woody habitat
aspect. Currently, Greater Prairie-Chickens seem to do
best in tallgrass prairies with a mix of 75% grassland and
25% cropland. Hens and chicks need taller vegetation
for concealment but not so tall or dense that their
movements are restricted. Preferred height of vegetation
in nesting areas is about 15 inches (38 cm), but nests have
been found in grass heights of 4-38 inches (10-97 cm).
Successful brood-rearing habitats generally have areas
of both dense and sparse cover and a high diversity of
forbs (broad-leaved annual plants), providing a diversity of
insects as food for chicks. High forb number and diversity
also support adults by producing seed crops that are their
primary food.
Natural history: Greater Prairie-Chicken males gather
in early spring on booming grounds (leks) and display to
attract females. Leks are comprised of from a few males
to more than 30 at times. Females visit leks to assess
male quality and to solicit matings, most of which are
performed by the one or two dominant males on the lek,
even in large leks. Females will often visit multiple leks,
sometimes multiple times, before mating. The species
forages on seeds, leaves, and insects on the ground, but
occasionally in trees, with most feeding occurring in
morning and evening.
Nest: Females construct nests that are bowl-shaped
depressions (7” wide, 3” deep) in the ground that they line
with feathers and dried grass and leaves, sometimes with
Eggs: Typically 10-12 (ranging from 7 to 17), olive to pale
buff with dark brown speckling
Did you know? The Lesser PrairieChicken of southeast Colorado,
southwest Kansas, western Oklahoma,
and panhandle Texas is quite similar with
similar habitat needs. In the northern
part of the species’ range, they prefer
high-structure grasslands; in Texas, areas
of grass and shinnery oak provide the
birds habitat.
Conservation need: Loss and/or
degradation of habitat, primarily through
extensive conversion of native grassland
to cropland but also through overgrazing, is the primary threat to prairiechicken populations. Some success
has been achieved in enlarging some
populations, but most are still declining
and are becoming more and more
isolated from each other, which can
create genetic problems.
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Maintain a patchwork of pastures containing short
grass, taller grass, and scattered shrubs for lekking,
foraging, nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering. This
mosaic can be produced by light to moderate grazing
or by burning at intervals of 3-4 years. However, in
the southwestern part of the range (Colorado, Kansas,
western Nebraska), burn intervals should be longer, as
the shortgrass prairie does not recover from burning as
quickly as does tallgrass prairie.
• Conserve native grassland, particularly on a large
• Avoid or minimize sheep grazing in shortgrass
habitat occupied by Greater Prairie-Chickens as sheep
graze an area more completely and to a shorter height,
and their habit of traveling in tight herds results more
often in nest destruction.
• Control non-native plants, including cheatgrass,
leafy spurge, and knapweed, which replace the grasslands
favored by prairie-chickens.
• Encourage native forbs including sunflowers,
compassplant, and wild indigo.
Greater Prairie-Chicken Distribution
Greater Prairie-Chicken Habitat
Associated species:
Other species that may benefit from
habitat management for Greater (and
Lesser) Prairie-Chickens include Sharptailed Grouse, Northern Harrier,
Swainson’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk,
Short-eared Owl, Loggerhead Shrike,
Cassin’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow,
and Eastern Meadowlark.
Greater Prairie-Chicken Diet
Seeds, grains 55%
Leaves, buds 25%
Insects 20%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus
Identification: The Sharp-tail is a medium-sized grouse,
somewhat intermediate in appearance between Greater
Prairie-Chicken and female Ring-necked Pheasant. Its
underparts are mottled dark and light; in the southern
parts of its range it has a pale belly. Sharp-tailed Grouse
has a medium-length, pale, pointed tail, and feathered legs
(pheasants have unfeathered legs). Males and females
have similar plumage, but males are larger, with a yellow
comb over each eye that enlarges and brightens during
display season. Males also have pinkish-violet air sacs on
the sides of their necks that they inflate during display and
which amplify their low cooing. Though Greater (and
Lesser) Prairie-Chickens can be similar, that species is
easily differentiated by the extensive horizontal barring
Habitat: Sharp-tailed Grouse primarily uses prairie or
prairie-like habitats in a mosaic of shrubland and forest,
such as aspen, birch, oak, and willow. In many parts of its
range, the species switches from more open grasslands
in summer to shrubby or wooded habitats in winter.
However, in parts of the range (particularly eastern
Wyoming and western Nebraska), the species can readily
be found in mosaics of native grassland and agriculture
with some woody component. This last is the
typical habitat of the species in the Shortgrass
Prairie region, where windbreaks and Sandsage provide the woody component.
Natural history: Sharp-tailed Grouse are
typical of lekking grouse with males gathering
in early spring and displaying to attract
females. Leks are comprised of from a few
to 25 males (occasionally more). Females
visit leks to assess male quality and to solicit
matings, most of which are performed by
the one or two dominant males on the
lek, even in large leks. Females will often
visit multiple leks, sometimes multiple
times, before mating. The grouse
forage on seeds, leaves, and buds. They
commonly feed in trees eating buds (like
Ruffed Grouse), much more so than do
prairie-chickens, particularly in winter
when snow covers other food supplies.
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Nest: Females construct nests in dense vegetation, often
under or near a shrub or small tree. The oval nest is
placed in a depression in the ground composed of various
materials, including moss, grasses, and leaves and lined
with sedges and some of her own breast feathers.
Eggs: Usually about 12 (up to 14), about 1¾” long, olivebuff to pale brown with various brown speckling
Did you know? Sharp-tailed Grouse may migrate short
distances (often <3 mi., but up to 40 mi.) to spend the
winter away from breeding grounds, at that time being
found in some areas in which the species does not breed
(e.g., northeast Colorado). This species and Greater
Prairie-Chicken have been known to hybridize where
their ranges overlap.
Conservation need: Loss of habitat is the main source of
population decline, primarily through conversion of native
grassland to cropland but also due to development and
urbanization (particularly near the Denver metropolitan
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Maintain a patchwork of pastures containing short
grass, taller grass, and scattered shrubs for lekking,
foraging, nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering. This
mosaic can be produced by light to moderate grazing
or by burning at intervals of 3-4 years. However, in
the south-central part of the range (eastern Wyoming,
western Nebraska), burn intervals should be longer, as
the shortgrass prairie does not recover from burning as
quickly as does tallgrass prairie.
• Conserve native grassland, particularly on a large
• Avoid or minimize sheep grazing in shortgrass
habitat occupied by Sharp-tailed Grouse as sheep graze an
area more completely and to a shorter height, and their
habit of traveling in tight herds results more often in nest
• Control non-native plants, including cheatgrass,
leafy spurge, and knapweed, which replace the grasslands
favored by these grouse.
• Encourage native forbs (broad-leafed plants)
including sunflowers, compassplant, and wild indigo.
Sharp-tailed Grouse Distribution
Sharp-tailed Grouse Habitat
Associated species:
Other species that may benefit from
habitat management for Sharp-tailed
Grouse include Greater PrairieChicken, Swainson’s Hawk, Lark
Bunting, and Western Meadowlark,.
Sharp-tailed Grouse Diet
Seeds, grains 40%
Leaves, buds 40%
Insects 20%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Swainson’s Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)
Identification: These birds are identified by a dark
brown head and bib (female) or gray head and reddish
bib (male), contrasting with white chin and belly. Some
individuals are dark brown underneath rather than
white. The tail has several dark, narrow bands with a
wider one near the tip. The wingspan is 52”.
Nest: A large stick nest, 2–4’ across and about 1’ tall,
is usually placed high in a live tree but sometimes in
a large bush or on a rock outcrop. Swainson’s Hawks
often reuse the same nest each year, or use old nests
of other birds, especially magpies, as the base for their
Habitat: Nesting habitat includes open grasslands
with scattered trees or large shrubs, river bottoms,
shelterbelts, and farmyards. The hawks hunt in open
habitats such as grasslands, hay fields, open shrublands,
or croplands. Their wintering habitat is grasslands and
Eggs: 2 (sometimes 3 or 4), 21/ 4 “ long, white with
dark brown blotches.
Natural history: Swainson’s Hawks begin to leave
their wintering grounds in February, and arrive on
the breeding grounds in March and April. They begin
nesting in April and May, with young birds usually out
of the nest by June or July. Many ranchers and farmers
are familiar with this species’ habit of following farm
equipment through the fields to pick up injured rodents
and insects. The birds leave for the wintering grounds in
September, migrating in
large flocks, sometimes
containing thousands of
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Did you know? Swainson’s Hawks are long-distance
migrants—the trip between their breeding grounds and
South American wintering grounds covers 5,000–8,000
miles and lasts 15–35 days each way.
Conservation need: California populations have
declined an estimated 91% since the early 1900s
and their breeding range across the continent has
diminished considerably. Causes include habitat loss
(loss of native grasslands, loss of nest trees, conversion
of suitable agricultural land by urbanization), pesticide
use (especially on the wintering grounds), and shooting
during migration. Populations are bouncing back in
some areas, although they continue to decline in others.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
Swainson’s Hawk Distribution
• Preserve trees in shelterbelts, windbreaks, and
around old homesteads, as those trees provide nest
sites. However, many of the trees are lost through
natural aging and dying, and through active removal as
small farms are consolidated into larger farms and old
homesteads are removed. As the trees are lost, suitable
nest sites become more scarce.
• Preserve trees that already contain nests, since
pairs often use the same nest year after year.
• Protect nest trees from livestock rubbing by using
fences or other barriers, and from destruction by fire,
herbicides, or other causes (Appendix C).
• Control rather than eradicate the primary prey
species (including rodents and grasshoppers), at levels
compatible with economic activities on the land.
Controlling those animals may be harmful to Swainson’s
Hawk populations—less food means fewer hawks.
• Leave unused utility poles for use as hunting
Associated species:
Other species that may benefit from habitat
management for Swainson’s Hawk include Red-tailed
Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk,
Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Mourning Dove,
Great Horned Owl, Western and Eastern Kingbird, and
Loggerhead Shrike.
Swainson’s Hawk Habitat
Swainson’s Hawk
Summer Diet
Small mammals (including ground squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs) 67%
Birds 25%
frogs, and
insects 8%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)
Identification: Often seen while soaring, these hawks
are rust-colored on the back and shoulders, mostly
white under the wings and on the breast, belly, and
tail (which lacks the dark bands of other hawks). The
rust-colored legs contrast with the white body and
look like a dark “V” when the bird is flying overhead.
Some individuals are all dark. This is the largest hawk in
North America, with a 53” wingspan. It gets its name,
Ferruginous (fer-OO-jin-us) from the red coloration,
like rusty iron (ferrous).
Habitat: Habitat, summer and winter, includes
grasslands, deserts, and other open areas with isolated
shrubs or trees where less than 50% of the land is
under cultivation. During winter, Ferruginous Hawks
are often found around colonies of prairie dogs, which
make up much of their winter diet.
Natural history: These birds arrive in the northern part
of the breeding grounds in March and April. Nesting
begins as early as mid-March in Colorado and Kansas,
but in most other prairie states nesting does not
start until May. Young leave the nest during late June
and July.
Nest: A bulky nest of sticks 3’ across and 2’ tall is
placed in an isolated tree or in a tree within a small
grove of trees. Nests can also be placed on other
elevated sites such as large shrubs, rock outcrops,
buttes, haystacks, transmission towers, and low
cliffs. The same nest can be used year after year,
with the birds adding more sticks each year—some
Ferruginous Hawk nests are 12–15’ tall. Nests are
located adjacent to open areas such as grasslands or
Eggs: 3 or 4 (sometimes up to 6), 21/ 2 “ long, offwhite, sometimes with brown blotches
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Did you know? In the Old West, Ferruginous Hawks
used not only sticks but also bison bones to build nests,
and used bison wool and manure to line the nests.
Conservation need: Ferruginous Hawk numbers are
low—a 1993 estimate placed the population as low as
12,000 birds. The populations are stable in some areas
but declining in others. Causes for declines include
loss of habitat (by conversion of native prairie to
cropland or other uses, conversion of suitable habitat
by urbanization, and conversion of native vegetation
to non-native) and disturbance of nesting birds. This
species is very sensitive to human disturbance around
the nest.
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit from habitat
management for Ferruginous Hawk include Swainson’s
Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks,
Golden Eagles, American Kestrels, Mountain Plovers,
Mourning Doves, Great Horned Owls, Burrowing
Owls, Western and Eastern Kingbirds,
and Loggerhead Shrikes.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Preserve native grassland, as its conversion to
cropland is considered the main factor in population
• Control rather than eradicate the primary prey
species (ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and jackrabbits).
Retain populations at levels compatible with economic
activities on the land.
• Deferred grazing in mixed-grass prairie may help
control prairie dogs. With adequate moisture, the
vegetation may grow faster than the prairie dogs can
clip it in the spring, impacting their abilities to settle in
or expand in these areas.
• Poison only active prairie dog burrows if you use
chemical controls.
• Avoid the use of strychnine to poison rodents.
Hawks can die from eating the poisoned animals.
• Avoid disturbances near Ferruginous Hawk
nests during the nesting season, such as visits by
humans, mineral extraction, or pipeline construction.
Such activities result in fewer young birds produced,
or even nest abandonment by the adults. Limit brief
disturbances to no closer than 1/ 2 mile, prolonged
disturbances no closer than 1 mile, and long-term
disturbances (such as construction) no closer than 11/2
• Preserve trees planted as windbreaks and around
abandoned homesteads. As with
Swainson’s Hawks, some nest
sites are in those areas, and as
those trees are lost, nest sites
become more scarce.
• Preserve trees that already
contain nests, since pairs often
use the same nest year after year.
• Protect nest trees from
livestock rubbing by using fences
or other barriers (Appendix C),
and from destruction by fire,
herbicides, or other causes.
Ferruginous Hawk Distribution
Ferruginous Hawk Habitat
Ferruginous Hawk Summer Diet
Rodents (mostly ground squirrels and prairie dogs) 64%
Rabbits 20%
Birds and snakes 16%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Mountain Plover
Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus)
Identification: In summer, the Mountain Plover is mostly
light brown with a white throat and breast, and white
under the wings. It has a white forehead and white line
over the eye, which contrast with a dark brown cap.
Plovers blend in extremely well with the background,
making them very difficult to spot, especially when they
hunker down on their nests. The winter plumage is similar
to the summer plumage, but the brown colors are paler.
Plovers lack the black bands across the chest found on
their more common (and noisier) relative, the Killdeer.
They are a little smaller than Killdeer—about 8” tall. This
species was originally called “Rocky Mountain Plover,” but
the name was shortened.
Habitat: Despite the name, Mountain Plovers breed in
shortgrass prairie where the land is fairly flat or gently
sloped. They favor areas where vegetation is sparse
(at least 30% bare ground) and very short (2” or less).
Dry alkaline lakes are attractive to plovers, as are areas
where grazing livestock or prairie dogs have reduced
vegetation height and density. They will also nest in areas
with low, widely scattered shrubs. Plovers will forage and
nest in agricultural fields that are bare or contain short
vegetation, but will abandon nests in such habitats when
the vegetation grows taller than about 2”. Winter habitat
includes alkali flats, plowed or burned fields, fallow fields,
heavily grazed grasslands, sod farms, prairie dog colonies,
or other areas with low, sparse vegetation.
Natural history: These birds leave their wintering
grounds (primarily in California) in mid-February or
March, and begin to arrive on the breeding grounds in
March. Southern birds lay their eggs in April, northern
birds in June. Their young are on their own by June or
July. In hot weather, young birds can die within 15 minutes
if not protected from the sun by an adult. Adults protect
their nests from trampling by flying up into the face of
cattle that get too close. Mountain Plovers don’t need
access to water for drinking, as they get enough from their
diet. Although they are often found near water sources
such as stock ponds, it may be the low, sparse vegetation
that attracts them. The adults usually begin
leaving for the wintering grounds as early as July,
arriving during mid-September to November.
During migration, they sometimes form flocks of
hundreds of birds.
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Nest: A shallow bowl on the ground, the nest is
sometimes lined with dried grasses. Unlike some other
ground-nesting prairie birds, Mountain Plovers do not
place their nests next to tall vegetation, although they
often place them next to dried manure.
Eggs: usually 3 (sometimes 2 or 4), 11/ 2 “ long, buffy or
olive-colored, with small dark brown splotches; wellcamouflaged and extremely difficult to find.
Did you know? Female Mountain Plovers will sometimes
lay eggs in one nest and leave it in the male’s care while
she lays eggs in a second nest, which she tends.
Conservation need: The Mountain Plover’s population
and distribution are declining at an alarming rate, faster
than any other grassland bird. Between 1966 and
1991, the population dropped by an estimated 63%.
The current total population is estimated at less than
9,000 birds, which is a very low number compared to
most other bird species. Causes for the decline include
conversion of native shortgrass prairie to cropland,
urbanization (especially on the wintering grounds),
removal of prairie dogs, oil and gas development, and
plowing and planting on the nesting grounds (the bare
ground of fallow and plowed fields is very attractive to
plovers, but many nests are destroyed when the fields are
planted or tilled, or are abandoned when the crops grow
taller than 2”).
Associated species:
Other species that may benefit from habitat management
for Mountain Plovers include Greater Short-horned
Lizard, Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, Horned Lark,
and McCown’s Longspur.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
Mountain Plover Distribution
• Graze shortgrass prairie at moderate to heavy levels
in summer, late winter, or early spring to create the short,
sparse vegetation profile preferred by Mountain Plovers.
• Burn shortgrass prairie outside of the nesting season
to create favorable vegetation conditions.
• Control rather than eradicate prairie dogs. Retain
populations of prairie dogs at levels compatible with
economic activities on the land. Efforts to control prairie
dogs may be detrimental to plovers, as prairie dogs
provide the low, sparse vegetation structure favored by
• Poison only active prairie dog burrows if you use
chemical controls.
• Deferred grazing in mixed-grass prairie may help
control prairie dogs. With adequate moisture, the
vegetation may grow faster than the prairie dogs can clip it
in the spring, impacting their abilities to settle in or expand
in these areas.
• Preserve native shortgrass prairie, because plovers
usually cannot nest successfully in croplands.
• Delay discing croplands until June, to allow plovers
to complete their nesting.
• Plant native shortgrass species (blue grama and
buffalograss) rather than taller, non-native species. Plovers
will not use areas with tall grasses.
• Control non-native plants, including cheatgrass, leafy
spurge, and knapweed, which displace native shortgrass
prairie plants and do not provide the structure favored by
• Avoid disturbance to nesting
Mountain Plover Habitat
plovers by restricting activities such
as oil and gas exploration, water
well development, and other similar
activities during the nesting season. Such
activities are restricted at certain sites
from April through June in Colorado,
Wyoming, and Utah to protect plovers.
• Protect the area around known
nest sites as some plovers will reuse
nest sites in subsequent years, and their
offspring will return to nest near where
they hatched.
• Maintain wintering sites as native
rangeland, and protect from uses that
are harmful to plovers, such as use of
off-road vehicles.
Mountain Plover Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mostly grasshoppers, beetles, crickets, ants) 99%
Seeds 1%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Upland Sandpiper
Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda)
Identification: Brown on the back and wings, but
lighter on the breast, belly, and underwings. Long neck,
and eyes that look like they’re too large for the small
head. Just under 1’ tall. Upland Sandpipers are often
seen perched on fenceposts. Adults sometimes feign
injury to draw humans and predators away from nests.
southern breeding grounds in April, and in the north in
May. Nesting in the southern part of their range begins
in late April and May, and in the northern areas in late
May and June. Most young birds leave the nest in June
and July. They depart for the wintering grounds by late
Habitat: In shortgrass prairies, Upland Sandpipers
are usually found near water and other areas with
tall grasses, up to 24”, although they sometimes nest
in grass as short as 4”. Their typical nesting habitat is
the tall, dense vegetation found in mixed-grass and
tallgrass prairies, with up to 50% forbs, few shrubs,
and little bare ground. They also nest in wet meadows
and hayfields, and sometimes in weedy fallow fields,
roadsides, Conservation Reserve Program lands, and
row crops. Litter cover is usually moderate to dense,
11/ 2–31/2 “ deep. Their nesting territory usually includes
rock piles, stumps, or fenceposts for displaying. They
forage in areas where the vegetation is up to10” tall,
such as grazed pastures, plowed fields, stubble, and
croplands. Brooding areas contain vegetation 4–8” tall.
Nest: A depression in the ground, the nest is 2–3”
deep, lined with grasses, inside diameter 4–5”, usually
covered by overhanging vegetation.
Natural history: Upland Sandpipers leave their
wintering grounds in mid-February, arriving on the
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Eggs: usually 4 (sometimes 3 or 5), 13/4 “ long,
buff-colored with brown speckles and blotches
concentrated on the large end of the egg
Did you know? Upland Sandpiper numbers dropped
substantially during the 1880s as market hunters ran
out of Passenger Pigeons and switched their aim to the
Conservation need: Populations are increasing on
the Great Plains, but declining in other areas, such as
the Upper Midwest and New England. They are most
common in the mixed-grass and tallgrass prairies, and
have never been very common in the shortgrass prairie.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
• Maintain a patchwork of shortgrass and other
grasses of different heights and densities to provide
habitat for foraging, nesting, and brood-rearing.
• Avoid grazing in areas known or suspected to be
used for nesting sites, which removes the taller grasses
preferred by Upland Sandpipers for nesting.
• Protect taller grasses around water, which may
be the only suitable habitat for Upland Sandpipers in the
shortgrass prairie.
• Delay mowing or pesticide applications until late
July, to allow the birds to complete their nesting cycle.
• Leave small pockets of uncut hay as refuges for
young birds if hayfields must be cut before late July.
• Use a flush bar or similar device if you must mow
earlier than mid-July (Appendix A).
• Use a back-and-forth mowing pattern (illustrated
in Appendix A).
Upland Sandpiper Distribution
Upland Sandpiper Habitat
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit from habitat
management for Upland Sandpipers include Ringnecked Pheasants, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater PrairieChicken, Baird’s Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and
Western Meadowlarks.
Upland Sandpiper Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mostly grasshoppers, crickets, weevils; also beetles, grubs) 97%
Seeds 3%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew (Numenius
Identification: This is North America’s largest
shorebird, standing about 16” tall. The overall color
is cinnamon brown, lighter on the breast and belly,
with brown markings. But the most striking feature of
these birds is the extremely long, downward-curving
bill: 5–6” long for the male, and 61/ 2–8” for the female.
Their long bills are used to probe for food deep in mud
and soft soil. Their “cur-lee” calls can be heard for long
distances across the prairie.
Habitat: Curlews nest in shortgrass and mixedgrass prairie, with or without scattered shrubs, and
occasionally in idle cropland such as wheat stubble.
They prefer short vegetation, and nest where
vegetation is less than 12” and often where it is less
than 4” tall. Total vegetation cover should be 50–95%.
After hatching, the adults move the chicks to areas of
taller grasses and scattered forbs and shrubs, apparently
for protection from predators and weather extremes,
although they avoid areas of dense vegetation, possibly
due to low visibility and difficulty of travel for chicks.
Curlews are often found within 1/4 mile of standing
water, and often much closer, although the birds are
rarely seen actually using the water. The water is
often from human sources (stock tank overflow, stock
ponds, etc.). As with Mountain Plovers, curlews may be
attracted to the short vegetation created by livestock
near such water sources, rather than being attracted
to the water itself. They often search for food in wet
meadows or areas of moist
soil, which may also explain
the attraction to water
sources. Winter habitat is
open fields, grasslands, and
shores of oceans, bays, and
freshwater lakes.
Natural history: Nesting
usually takes place in May and
June, with most young birds
leaving their nests during June
and July. Most birds leave their
breeding grounds by the end of
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August. Territories, which range from 15–35 acres in
size, are often reused in subsequent years. Curlews will
not re-nest if their nest is destroyed by predators or
other causes, but instead will wait until the following
year to try again.
Nest: A depression in the ground about 2” deep, lined
with grass or weeds, inside diameter about 8”.
Eggs: usually 4 (sometimes 5), 21/2” long, pale green or
buff-colored, heavily marked with dark brown blotches
Did you Know? The nest is often placed next to dried
manure, probably to help hide the nest from predators,
or to mask its scent.
Conservation need: Long-billed Curlews are one of
the highest conservation priorities on the Great Plains.
Their populations in the shortgrass prairie have declined
10% per year for several decades, probably because
of the loss of suitable breeding habitat as prairie is
converted to cropland or urban developments. Other
possible causes include loss of habitat and pesticide use
on the wintering grounds.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Associated species:
Long-billed Curlew Distribution
Other species that may benefit from habitat
management for Long-billed Curlew include Greater
Short-horned Lizard, Mountain Plover, Horned Lark,
and Swift Fox.
Long-billed Curlew Habitat
Management recommendations:
• Maintain a patchwork of pastures containing
shortgrass, taller grasses, and scattered shrubs for
foraging, nesting, and brood-rearing.
• Preserve native shortgrass prairie, as its
conversion to cropland often renders it unacceptable to
• Avoid grazing sheep in shortgrass habitat
occupied by nesting curlews. Sheep grazing may be
more detrimental than cattle grazing, as sheep graze an
area more completely and to a shorter height, and their
habit of traveling in tight herds results more often in
nest destruction.
• Plant native shortgrass species (blue grama and
buffalograss), forbs, and legumes rather than taller, nonnative species. Curlews will not nest in areas with tall
• Control non-native plants, including cheatgrass,
leafy spurge, and knapweed, which do not provide
the structure favored by curlews, and displace native
shortgrass prairie plants.
• Avoid disturbance to curlews at known nesting
sites by restricting activities such as oil and gas
exploration, water well development, and other similar
activities during the nesting season.
• Protect the area around known nest sites because
some curlews will reuse nest sites in subsequent years
and their offspring will return to nest near where they
Long-billed Curlew Summer Diet
Invertebrates (insects, worms, burrow-dwelling crustaceans, mollusks) 90%
Toads, eggs,
nestlings 10%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Identification: These are small, long-legged owls, 8–10”
tall, brown with white spots on the back and wings, and
dark brown barring on the light brown breast and belly.
They are often seen in the daytime perched on fenceposts
or on the ground in or near prairie dog colonies. They
have the peculiar habit of bobbing up and down while
looking at prey or other animals.
Habitat: Burrowing Owls nest in treeless areas with
short vegetation (less than 4” tall), usually where there
are prairie dogs. The owls nest underground in burrows
dug by prairie dogs, badgers, or foxes. They successfully
raise more young where there is a high density of prairie
dogs, probably because the owls are less conspicuous to
predators in areas with many prairie dogs, or because
prairie dogs are good at spotting predators and barking
to alert all residents of the colony including the owls.
Burrowing Owls benefit from some areas of tall, dense
vegetation (at least 12” tall), which provides habitat for
insect and small mammal prey.
Natural history: Northern birds leave their wintering
grounds in March and April, arriving on the breeding
grounds as late as May. They begin laying eggs in late
March in the southern part of the range, and mid-May in
the north. Burrowing Owls nest in loose colonies, with
nest burrows about 100 yards apart. The adults and
young birds move around and use “satellite” burrows
in addition to the nest burrow. Northern birds leave for
their wintering grounds by mid-October, while more
southern birds remain year-round. Unlike many other
owls, Burrowing Owls will hunt during the day. This is
when they capture insects near the nest burrow and in
other areas of short vegetation. They also hunt at night,
capturing small mammals in areas of taller vegetation.
Contrary to popular belief, they do not share their
burrows with prairie dogs or rattlesnakes.
Burrowing Owls rely on prairie dogs
to maintain the burrows that they use
for nesting and resting. Without prairie
dogs, burrows remain usable to owls
for only 1–3 years, depending on the
soil type. Although they will do minor
excavating, the owls are unable to dig
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new burrows or clear out collapsed burrows.
Nest: The nest is located underground at the end of a
burrow 4–12’ long. The nest is usually lined with plants or
dried manure, probably either to disguise its scent or to
help absorb water.
Eggs: usually 5–7 (sometimes as few as 3 or as many as
10), 11/ 4 “ long, white, almost round
Did you know? Zuni Indians called the Burrowing Owl
the “Priest of the Prairie Dogs.”
Conservation need: Significant range contractions
and population declines have occurred in some areas,
especially Canada and California, where 60% of the
breeding birds disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s.
Over the past 100 years, Burrowing Owl populations in
British Columbia, Alberta, California, Nevada, Colorado,
and New Mexico have dropped by more than 50%. In
Saskatchewan, the population declined 88% between
1988 and 1997. Causes include loss of habitat (due to
urbanization and conversion of native grasslands to
croplands or to taller, non-native grasslands), and removal
of ground squirrels (in California) and prairie dogs.
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit from habitat management
for Burrowing Owls include Swainson’s Hawks, Red-tailed
Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Golden
Eagles, Mountain Plovers, and Horned Larks.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Management recommendations:
Burrowing Owl Distribution
• Retain populations of the principal insect prey
species (grasshoppers, crickets, beetles) at levels
compatible with economic activities on the land.
Insecticides have direct (poisoning) and indirect (loss of
prey) effects on the birds. If insecticides are necessary,
postpone their use until after the young owls have left the
care of their parents (i.e., after the end of July).
• Control rather than eradicate prairie dogs. Retain
populations of prairie dogs at levels compatible with
economic activities on the land because Burrowing
Owls are heavily dependent on prairie dogs for nest
burrows. Consider the use of barrier fences to control the
distribution of prairie dogs.
• Poison only active prairie dog burrows if you use
chemical controls.
• Don’t poison burrows used by Burrowing Owls.
These burrows can often be identified by the presence
of feathers and white droppings around the burrow
entrance, or livestock manure lining the burrow. However,
these signs are not always present, especially when the
young hatch and start using different burrows than the
nest burrow. A safer alternative is to fumigate burrows in
the spring before the owls arrive, or bait in the fall after
the owls have left.
• Maintain areas of taller vegetation, such as weedy
• Leave inactive burrows open to provide roosting
fallow fields or fencerows, within 11/2 miles of known
sites and future nesting sites for owls.
owl nest burrows, to provide habitat for the owls’ prey
• Educate varmint hunters about the owls, and
instruct them to be sure of their targets. Given the
• Drive slowly by colonies to avoid collisions with
owls’ habit of perching on the ground outside a burrow
owls—vehicles often hit owls when they fly low over
entrance, some owls could be mistaken for prairie dogs or
roads in search of prey.
ground squirrels.
Burrowing Owl Habitat
• Protect known nest
burrows because the owls will
often reuse the same burrow in
subsequent years.
• Maintain a buffer zone
of 100–300 yards (up to 1/ 2
mile, if possible) around owl
nest burrows; limit insecticide
applications, rodent control, and
other human disturbances in this
• Graze areas of shortgrass
prairie used by owls, to maintain a
low vegetation profile and provide
manure for owl nests.
Burrowing Owl Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mostly grasshoppers) 88%
Small mammals
and birds 12%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)
Identification: Slightly smaller than a robin, gray with
black wings and tail, white throat and breast, white
patches on the wings (especially visible when the bird is
flying), and a black mask across the eyes. At close range,
the hooked beak can be seen.
Shrikes hunt from elevated perches, such as utility lines
and poles, fences, trees, shrubs, even tall weeds. They
sometimes impale their prey on barbed wire or large
thorns to store it for later consumption, or to hold it
while they eat.
Habitat: Loggerhead Shrikes require areas with
scattered or clustered trees and shrubs in open country,
with a mix of short (less than 4”) and tall (more than 8”)
grasses. They avoid large expanses of very short grass,
such as heavily grazed pastures—probably because
there is less food there. On the plains, suitable nesting
sites include fencerows, shelterbelts, stream bottoms,
and abandoned farmsteads. Popular shrubs for nesting
include greasewood, saltbush, and sagebrush; popular
trees include hackberries, hawthorns, and red cedar.
Natural history: Loggerhead Shrikes that breed in
the north leave their wintering grounds in early April
and May; other birds remain in the south year-round.
They are early nesters, beginning their nesting activities
as early as February in the south and late April in
the north. Young birds usually leave the care of their
parents in June. Northern birds leave for their wintering
grounds by October. An almost identical species, the
Northern Shrike, moves into the shortgrass prairie
from northern Canada each winter.
Nest: A bulky nest of small twigs and bark strips,
placed in tall shrubs or small trees (especially those with
thorns) in open country.
Eggs: 4 or 5 (sometimes as many as 7), 1” long,
creamy white with light brown and gray blotches
Did you know? Some insects are naturally toxic to
birds, so shrikes store these toxic bugs on thorns or
barbed wire for a day or two until the toxins have
degraded and the food is safe to eat.
Conservation need: Loggerhead Shrikes are
declining in many areas of the U.S., with the
declines accelerating recently. Causes include
the loss of both breeding and wintering habitat
(conversion of pastures and hayfields to row
crops, urbanization), loss of insect prey
due to chemical controls, and pesticide
contamination (especially on the
wintering grounds).
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Associated species:
Loggerhead Shrike Distribution
Other species that may benefit from habitat
management for Loggerhead Shrikes include Swainson’s
Hawk, American Kestrel, Burrowing Owl, Long-eared
Owl, Northern Shrike, and Northern Mockingbird.
Loggerhead Shrike Habitat
Management recommendations:
• Avoid heavy grazing (especially in areas where
grass is naturally short or sparse)—tall vegetation, more
than 8”, provides habitat for prey.
• Control rather than eradicate populations of the
principal insect prey species (grasshoppers, crickets,
beetles), at levels compatible with economic activities
on the land. Insecticides have direct (poisoning) and
indirect (loss of prey) effects on shrikes.
• Protect known nest trees and shrubs from
browsing or rubbing by livestock and from destruction
by fire, herbicides, or other causes.
• Preserve tall grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation
along fencelines and other areas within 200 yards of
known nest trees because they provide habitat for prey.
• Preserve hedgerows and windbreaks because
they provide nesting sites, hunting perches, and habitat
for prey species. Where appropriate, establish new
thickets with thorns.
Loggerhead Shrike Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mostly grasshoppers) 72%
Small mammals
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Cassin’s Sparrow
Cassin’s Sparrow (Aimophila cassinii)
Identification: The Cassin’s Sparrow measures 5–6”
from beak to tail, with brown and gray streaking on
the back, a pale gray throat and breast, and a white
belly. The face is light gray. The brownish-gray central
tail feathers have conspicuous dark brown bands;
white corners on the tail are obvious when the bird
is flying. The male frequently flies up about 20’ above
his territory, then sets his wings and glides down while
Habitat: Cassin’s Sparrows inhabit shortgrass prairie
with scattered shrubs or other vegetation (including
bunchgrasses, sagebrush, yucca, rabbitbrush, mesquite,
oaks, and cactus). In some areas, they are found in
fairly dense shrublands with scattered grassy openings.
The taller plants are used as song perches and for nest
cover. Their territories typically contain 20–35% bare
ground, 40–80% total cover of shortgrass and mixedgrass, and at least 5% shrub cover. They will accept a
wide range of shrub cover densities as long as some
grass is also present. The winter habitat is similar to
that of summer.
Natural history: Nesting begins as early as March (in
Texas) and continues as late as early September (in
Arizona). Nesting begins in the latter half of May in
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Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Clusters of breeding
pairs often nest close to each other. Most birds have left
for their wintering grounds by late September.
Nest: A deep cup made of weeds and grasses, lined
with fine grasses or hair, placed on the ground in
bunchgrass or near the base of a shrub or cactus, or a
few inches off the ground in a shrub or cactus.
Eggs: usually 4 (sometimes 3 or 5), 3/ 4 “ long, plain
Did you know? Although all male Cassin’s Sparrows
sing the same basic song, each male’s song is slightly
different from his neighbors’ songs. The difference is
strong enough that individual birds can be identified by
careful study of their songs.
Conservation need: Cassin’s Sparrow populations
have been declining nationwide for decades, probably
a result of habitat loss due to conversion of native
prairie to cropland, urbanization, planting of non-native
grasses, fire exclusion leading to overly dense woody
vegetation, and brush control on the breeding and
wintering grounds.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Cassin’s Sparrow Distribution
Management recommendations:
• Avoid grazing in areas where the vegetation is
already sparse, such as sparse shortgrass and desert
grasslands. Cassin’s Sparrows usually respond negatively
to grazing in such areas, probably because of their need
for some tall vegetation for nest protection and as
song perches, and because of the habitat needs of their
insect prey.
• Provide a patchwork of grassland parcels of
different heights and densities. Cassin’s Sparrows
change nest sites from year to year, probably in
response to changes in plant growth, grass seed
production, and insect populations. Providing a diversity
of habitat types provides Cassin’s Sparrows options for
establishing breeding sites each year.
• Preserve suitable shrub/grass habitat (grassland
with at least 5% shrub cover).
• Avoid disturbance of nesting birds, as the adults
are easily disturbed at the nest, and visits by humans
often result in nest failure.
Cassin’s Sparrow Habitat
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit
from habitat management
for Cassin’s Sparrows include
Lesser Prairie-Chickens, Scaled
Quail, Loggerhead Shrikes,
Lark Buntings, and Western
Cassin’s Sparrow Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mostly beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars) 80%
Seeds 20%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Lark Bunting
Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)
Identification: These birds are 6 / 2 “ from the tip of the
beak to the end of the tail. In summer, the males are
black with bold white wing patches, while the females
are mostly brown, with white wing patches, dark
brown streaks on a white breast and cream-colored
corners on the tail. During winter, males resemble
females, but are darker, with a black throat. Beginning
in early spring, males fly up above their breeding
territory, then slowly glide down across it while singing
an exuberant song of whistles and trills. This handsome
species is Colorado’s state bird.
Habitat: Lark Buntings nest in open grasslands with a
mixture of short and tall grasses and scattered shrubs,
and in sagebrush shrublands with grassy openings. They
prefer to nest in areas with 60–70% low grass cover
and 10–15% bare ground. Also important is 10–30%
cover of shrubs, tall grasses, or other plants taller
than the blue grama and buffalograss (tall vegetation is
necessary for protecting nests from the hot prairie sun).
They will not nest in areas with less than 30% grass
cover or more than 60% bare ground. Other nest sites
include fallow fields with weeds and residual stubble,
Conservation Reserve Program lands with tall grasses,
and unmowed alfalfa and other hayfields, but they avoid
mowed hayfields. Winter habitat is similar to summer
habitat, although they will inhabit areas without shrubs.
Natural history: Birds leave the wintering grounds in
early March, arrive on their breeding grounds in April
and May, and begin nesting in May and June. Young
birds leave the nest during June and July. Migration
to the winter grounds occurs by late September,
although some birds may stay over the winter in the
southern parts of their range. The birds are most
common in Mexico from August to April. During
migration, large flocks of Lark Buntings are often
seen in weedy roadsides. During migration and
in winter, flocks may contain many hundreds of
birds. Most of their food is picked off the ground,
although they sometimes catch insects in flight.
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Nest: A cup of fine grasses placed on the ground,
inside diameter about 21/2 “, with the rim at ground
level, usually partially concealed with grasses or other
vegetation. It is often placed next to a shrub or other
tall vegetation. Neighboring nests are sometimes just
10–15 yards away.
Eggs: usually 4 or 5 (but as few as 3 or as many as 7),
/4 –1” long, pale blue or greenish-blue, sometimes with
reddish-brown spots
Did you know? In the 1800s and early 1900s, some
farmers waited for the arrival of Lark Buntings each
spring before planting, as the arrival of the birds
generally coincided with more settled and favorable
spring weather.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Conservation need: Ornithologists first began
reporting a steady shrinkage of the breeding range
and population declines in the 1800s, and the situation
has not changed since. Lark Bunting populations are
declining significantly across their range.
Lark Bunting Distribution
Associated species:
Other species that may benefit from habitat
management for Lark Buntings include Chestnutcollared Longspur, Western Meadowlark, and Swift Fox.
Management recommendations:
• Avoid heavy summer grazing of shortgrass on the
breeding grounds. This removes grass and forb cover
needed by prey (especially grasshoppers) and taller
vegetation needed to shade nests.
• Graze shortgrass lightly in summer or heavily in
• Graze at moderate to heavy intensity in the
northern and eastern parts of the species’ range
where grasses are taller (12” or more) to improve
Lark Bunting habitat by reducing vegetation height and
• Use short-term rotational grazing rather than
long-term grazing in shortgrass prairie to maintain the
tall vegetation these birds need.
• Delay mowing until mid-July, Lark Bunting Habitat
when young birds should be out
of their nests.
• Use a flush bar or similar
device if you must mow earlier
than mid-July (Appendix B).
• Retain shrubs, cacti, and
other tall vegetation, which are
needed by Lark Buntings for
perching and for shading nests.
• Preserve the taller, weedy
vegetation found along fencerows
as habitat for migrating buntings.
Lark Bunting Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mostly grasshoppers) 75%
Seeds 25%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
Identification: Grasshopper Sparrows are 4–5” long.
The back is chestnut and gray with some dark brown
markings. The throat is white or off-white. There is
a buffy tinge on the breast and sides with faint brown
streaking, and a plain white belly. The males sing an
insect-like buzz—the origin of the bird’s name. When
approached by a human, Grasshopper Sparrows often
run along the ground rather than fly.
Habitat: Grasshopper Sparrows are found in most
types of grassland, especially tallgrass and mixed-grass
prairies, but also shortgrass, especially where scattered
shrubs, trees, or other tall plants are present, and in
Conservation Reserve Program lands, which provide
the only suitable habitat in some parts of the shortgrass
prairie. In addition to native grasslands, they will nest
in fallow fields with tall weeds. Grasshopper Sparrows
require some areas of bare ground, up to 35% of their
territory, since they forage on the ground. In general,
they prefer sites where much of the vegetation is at
least 4” tall. These birds are highly territorial and prefer
areas with tall forbs or scattered trees or shrubs to
use as singing perches. However, they avoid areas with
more than 35% shrub cover. During winter, they can be
found in areas of dense grass with scattered low shrubs,
and in weedy fields.
Natural history: Birds start leaving the wintering
grounds as early as March. Nesting begins in May and
June, and most young are out of their nests by the
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end of July. Most birds have migrated off the breeding
grounds by late September. Grasshopper Sparrows
sometimes nest close together, and populations in a
particular location can vary widely from year to year, as
the birds move around in response to changes in their
Nest: A simple cup on the ground, made of grasses,
often at the base of grass clumps or other dense
vegetation. The nest is concealed by overhanging
Eggs: usually 4 or 5 (sometimes 3 or 6), 3/ 4 “ long,
white with reddish-brown blotches heaviest on the
large end
Did you know? Grasshopper Sparrow singing is unusual
in the bird world: the males sing two completely
different songs (one is the insect-like buzz, the other
more musical), and the females sing a trill to attract
Conservation need: Like several other grassland bird
species, Grasshopper Sparrow populations are declining
wherever they are found. Causes include loss of habitat
by urbanization, conversion of native grassland to
cropland, and overgrazing.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Grasshopper Sparrow Distribution
Management recommendations:
• Provide pastures and grassland parcels of at least
30 acres because Grasshopper Sparrows prefer large
tracts of suitable habitat. Nests in smaller tracts are
more likely to be found and destroyed by predators.
• Avoid grazing shortgrass, or delay grazing until
after the end of nesting (the end of July), because the
grazed vegetation often becomes too short and sparse
to suit Grasshopper Sparrows.
• Delay mowing until after nesting, i.e., usually the
end of July (mowing operations often destroy nests
placed in hayfields, or expose them to predators).
• Use a flush bar or similar device if you must mow
before mid-July (Appendix B).
• If pastures of shortgrass prairie are burned,
they should be burned at relatively long intervals (>8
years), as the tall vegetation and shrubs needed by
Grasshopper Sparrows take several years to reach
heights suitable for the birds.
Grasshopper Sparrow Habitat
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit
from habitat management
for Grasshopper Sparrows
include Ring-necked Pheasants,
Greater and Lesser PrairieChickens, Upland Sandpipers,
Vesper Sparrows, and Western
Grasshopper Sparrow Summer Diet
Invertebrates 61% (mostly grasshoppers)
Seeds 39%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
McCown’s Longspur
McCown’s Longspur (Calcarius mccownii)
Identification: These birds are 5–6” long from beak
to tail. The male in summer has a gray face with black
crown and “moustache,” gray back with black streaking,
white throat, black across the breast, and white belly.
Chestnut-colored “shoulders” are especially noticeable
in flight. An inverted “T” can be seen in the tail in flight,
formed by a black band across the end of the tail, black
central tail feathers, and white outer tail feathers. The
female is similar to the male, but the colors are muted.
In winter, the black on the male’s head is brown, and
the black on the breast is not as noticeable, while the
female looks like she does in summer. The male displays
by flying up above his territory, then floating down on
outstretched wings while singing his territorial song.
Habitat: McCown’s Longspurs breed in shortgrass,
especially where vegetation cover is sparse due to soil
moisture or grazing, or is interspersed with shrubs or
taller grasses. They are also found in grazed mixedgrass prairies and stubblefields. Individuals often use
sparsely vegetated hilltops for displaying and nesting.
They require areas of bare soil, and nest sites are
often on barren hillsides. Early in the breeding season,
nests are often placed on south-facing slopes. Nesting
territories usually include 45–80% grass cover and
15–25% bare ground, with little or no cover by forbs,
woody plants, or cactus (although nests started late
in the season are more likely to be in
denser vegetation or near shrub cover,
perhaps for protection from the sun’s
heat). Longspurs breed
in loose colonies.
Winter habitat is similar
to that of summer,
with the addition of
freshly plowed and
bare fields.
Natural history:
Longspurs leave
the wintering
grounds in late
February and
March, arrive
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on the breeding grounds in late March and April, and
often linger into November. Nesting begins by mid- to
late May, with most young out of the nest by mid-July.
Paired birds are strongly attached to each other and
stay close together, even walking side by side when
Nest: A simple grass structure, the rim level with the
ground, placed next to a grass tuft, cactus, or small
shrub, in an area of very sparse plant cover.
Eggs: 3–4 (sometimes as many as 6), 3/ 4 “ long, buffcolored with faint brown blotches
Did you know? The nests are difficult for predators
(and humans) to find because the female sits tightly
on her nest until practically stepped upon, relying on
her superb camouflage to avoid detection. Females
also have a strong instinct to protect the eggs: one
researcher who wanted to count eggs in the nest of a
particularly protective mother had to first lift her off
the nest because she refused to abandon her eggs even
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Conservation need: The population is down and the
range has contracted since at least the early 1900s,
probably because of loss of breeding and wintering
habitat through fire exclusion, conversion of native
prairie to cropland, and urbanization.
McCown’s Longspur Distribution
Management recommendations:
• Retain populations of the principal insect prey
species (especially grasshoppers) at levels compatible
with economic activities on the land.
• Graze at moderate to heavy intensity to improve
McCown’s Longspur habitat by reducing vegetation
height and density.
• Graze in summer, rather than winter.
• Preserve or create native shortgrass prairie
because longspurs cannot nest successfully in croplands
or in tall non-native grasses.
• Control non-native plants, including cheatgrass,
leafy spurge, and knapweed, which do not provide
the vegetation structure preferred by longspurs, and
displace native shortgrass prairie plants.
• Protect the area around known nest sites because
some longspurs will return to nest in subsequent years.
McCown’s Longspur Habitat
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit from
habitat management for McCown’s
Longspurs include Greater Short-horned
Lizards, Mountain Plovers, Long-billed
Curlews, Burrowing Owls, and Horned
McCown’s Longspur Summer Diet
Seeds 70%
Invertebrates (mostly grasshoppers)
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Chestnut-collared Longspur
Chestnut-collared Longspur (Calcarius
Identification: Chestnut-collared Longspurs are 41/ 2–6”
long. The male in summer is dark brown overall with
some lighter brown streaking on the back. He has a
black crown with black and white on the face and pale
yellow on the throat and face up to the eye. The nape
of the neck is chestnut. The female in summer has
brown streaks on the back and crown, a white throat, a
brown “necklace,” white belly with faint brown streaks
on the sides. In winter males, brown replaces the black
on the head and breast, and the chestnut on the back
of the neck. The female doesn’t change much from
summer to winter, although her overall coloration in
winter is paler. Like the male McCown’s Longspur, the
male Chestnut-collared Longspur sings while flying over
his territory.
Habitat: Chestnut-collared Longspurs prefer
shortgrass or grazed mixed-grass prairie with scattered
shrubs. In dry areas with sparse vegetation, they
seek out wet meadows and other low, moist areas
where the vegetation is taller and denser. They appear
to prefer a mix of short and tall grasses, especially
bunchgrasses, and usually avoid the tall dense cover
common to some Conservation Reserve Program lands.
They will nest in mowed hayfields and grazed pastures,
provided some vegetation is 8–12” tall, but they avoid
cultivated fields for nesting. They prefer native pasture
over planted grasses or hayfields, and they avoid areas
with dense litter. The territory is usually centered on
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a large rock, fencepost, or shrub, which is used as a
singing post. Some research has shown them to nest
most successfully in grassland patches of at least 140
acres. Winter habitat is similar to that of summer—
grasslands with vegetation less than 20” tall, also
croplands and mowed hayfields.
Natural history: Birds arrive in mid-April and begin
nesting in May, with most young out of their nests by
mid-June. However, because some pairs nest a second
time, young can be found in nests as late as mid-August.
After the end of the nesting season, the birds forage in
large flocks. Most birds migrate south by September or
October. The male vigorously attacks and drives away
other birds and ground squirrels that get too close to
the nest.
Nest: A nest of fine grasses placed in an area of sparse
vegetation, the rim below or level with the ground,
placed under grass tufts.
Eggs: 3–5 (sometimes 6), 3/4 “ long, white with dark
brown speckles and blotches
Did you know? Unlike many songbirds that live
in forests, Chestnut-collared Longspurs and other
grassland birds do not hop on the ground, but walk or
run. The elongated claw of the backward-facing toe
may aid in this—it is this elongated claw that gives the
bird its name, “longspur.”
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Conservation need: The breeding range has
contracted, and the population has declined. For
example, Chestnut-collared Longspurs were common
breeders in western Kansas in the late 1800s, but they
no longer nest there. Significant declines have also
been recorded in Minnesota and Saskatchewan. Causes
for the declines include loss of native prairie due to
urbanization and through conversion to cropland.
Chestnut-collared Longspur Distribution
Management recommendations:
• Protect known nesting sites because the birds will
nest in the same areas year after year.
• Graze lightly or moderately in shortgrass
prairie, leaving some areas of vegetation at least 6”
tall—longspurs are more abundant in properly grazed
grassland than in ungrazed grassland.
• Use a twice-over rotation system, which creates
more suitable habitat than either season-long or shortduration grazing.
• Preserve native prairie because longspurs will not
nest in croplands.
Chestnut-collared Longspur Habitat
Associated species:
Other wildlife that may benefit
from habitat management for
Chestnut-collared Longspurs
include Greater Short-horned
Lizards, Lark Buntings, Western
Meadowlarks, and Swift Foxes.
Chestnut-collared Longspur Summer Diet
Invertebrates (mainly beetles, grasshoppers, spiders) 72%
Seeds 28%
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Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat
Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat (Dipodomys ordii)
Identification: Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat is a medium-sized
kangaroo-rat with five toes per foot. It has a relatively
long tail (even for a “k-rat”) accounting for about 60%
of the species’ average 10” length. The tail is only rarely
white-tipped. The fur is pale cinnamon-buff (with some
darker color) on the upperparts with distinct dark facial
markings. There are usually distinct white patches at
the bases of the ears and above the eyes.
Habitat: This species is resident in a wide variety
of habitats (e.g., grassland, semi-desert shrubland,
piñon-juniper woodland) on the Great Plains and in the
Intermountain West from southernmost Canada well
into Mexico where sandy soils predominate. It readily
colonizes newly-disturbed areas with little ground cover
and where shifting sands are a conspicuous component
of the habitat.
Natural history: Ord’s Kangaroo-Rats dig deep
burrows in which they spend their days safe
from predators and high summer and low winter
temperatures typical of the species’ range. These
burrows often have multiple entrances and the rats’
extensive burrowing greatly aerates the soil and can
create “soft” patches or mounds at the surface. The
primary food supplies are the typical weedy annuals of
arid country that produce relatively
large seeds, such as sunflowers.
Ord’s Kangaroo-Rats collect
seeds that they store in their
expansive cheek pouches to
take back to their burrows
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and eat in relative safety. They do not hibernate, so
can be found during the winter foraging on the snow
for their daily seed haul, though the species is strictly
nocturnal (active at night). Their primary predators are
Swift Foxes, Badgers (which can dig them out of their
burrows), rattlesnakes, and open-country owls (such as
Barn Owl).
Litter: Typical litters consist of three young, ranging
from two to six. The breeding season occupies a large
portion of the year, from early spring to late summer
or early fall, dependent on latitude and other factors.
However, during drought and other conditions during
which food resources are poor, breeding is limited with
fewer litters and fewer young per litter.
Did you know? Ord’s Kangaroo-Rats have no particular
need for surface water as they metabolize all their
water needs from the dry seeds (mostly weed seeds)
that they eat. So unimportant is available water to the
species that they do not even know how to swim.
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Conservation need: Though the species’
populations are susceptible to conversion of native
habitats, as are virtually all species detailed in this
booklet, Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat is fairly resilient
and can be found in fairly disturbed and altered
habitats. There is no strong concern for the
species’ populations currently, though urbanization
in some areas certainly has a strong negative effect.
Additionally, the historic alteration of prairie stream
flows, particularly the channelization of the larger
water courses may have erected barriers to dispersal
to an animal without the ability to swim.
Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat Distribution
Management recommendations:
• Conserve native grasslands, especially
on a large scale.
• Avoid filling in burrows.
• Encourage native forbs, including
• Control non-native plants, such as
leafy spurge and cheatgrass, which do not
provide the vegetation structure nor food
resources that this species prefers.
Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat Habitat
Associated species:
Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat shares its habitat with
many other prairie species, particularly Swift
Fox, Burrowing Owl, Lark Bunting, and
McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs.
Ord’s Kangaroo-Rat Diet
Seeds 90%
Insects 10%
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Swift Fox
Swift Fox (Vulpes velox)
Identification: This, one of the smallest native dogs
of North America, is about the size of a house cat,
weighing only around 4-5 lbs. The black-tipped tail
is distinctive, as are black marks on the muzzle. The
winter fur is primarily buffy-gray on the head and
upperparts (including the upper side of the tail),
orangish-tan on the sides, legs, and underside of the tail,
and pale buff on the throat, chest, and belly. In summer,
Swift Foxes are overall more reddish-gray.
Habitat: Swift Foxes prefer open or sparsely-vegetated
shortgrass and mixed-grass prairie with high visibility.
In some parts of the range, particularly more southerly
areas (e.g., southeast Colorado), habitat preference is
a bit wider with shrubbier habitats being utilized. The
conversion of native prairie to cropland and other uses
is detrimental to the species. Den sites, which are used
year-round (unlike in other North American canids), are
typically burrows excavated by the foxes themselves, or
modifications they make to existing badger or prairiedog burrows, on well-drained slopes or hilltops near
water. Those used solely for protection (from weather
and predators) typically have a single entrance. Those
used for birthing are often mazes of burrows and
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tunnels with multiple entrances.
Natural history: This species eats primarily smaller
mammals (e.g., mice and rabbits), but also scavenges
carcasses killed by other causes (e.g., disease or other
predators). Swift Foxes are opportunistic predators
and will kill and eat nearly anything that they can catch
(e.g., birds). The breeding season of Swift Fox runs
from January into summer, with pups born in April or
May. Pups leave the parents’ territory sometime in fall.
Litter: Typical litters consist of four or five pups, but
range from as few as one to as many as eight pups.
Did you know? Swift Foxes have a low tolerance for
wind and are rarely seen above-ground on windy days.
Also, adults are very fast runners, reaching speeds of 25
miles per hour, hence the species’ name.
Conservation need: During the latter 1800s and
early 1900s, the Swift Fox suffered drastic reduction
in both range and numbers and disappeared entirely
from the Canadian part of its range. Primary causes of
this decline were conversion of prairie and harvesting
for furs. The Canadian government has reintroduced
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the species in parts of its historic range with success.
Other reintroduction efforts have been successful in
South Dakota and elsewhere in the United States.
These efforts have been part of the cause behind a
resurgence of range and population size in many areas.
Even parts of the species’ range that have not hosted
reintroduction efforts have seen a rebound in Swift Fox
numbers, particularly Colorado, Wyoming, and western
Kansas. Swift Fox have been trapped in Colorado and
released elsewhere in the Great Plains to enhance
smaller populations. This species was proposed for
listing under the Endangered Species Act but was
removed from “candidate” status partly due to the
willingness of private landowners to allow access for
surveys and restoration efforts.
Swift Fox Distribution
Associated species:
Most other native, terrestrial prairie animals also
depend on areas that support Swift Fox, particularly
Ferruginous Hawk, Mountain Plover, Burrowing Owl,
Lark Bunting, and McCown’s and Chestnut-collared
Swift Fox Habitat
Management recommendations:
• Return cropland to native
prairie; incentives and cost-share
programs are available through state
and federal agences for this purpose.
• If controlling coyote
populations, avoid killing Swift Foxes.
• Avoid disturbing burrows,
particularly birthing dens during the
breeding season.
• Control rather than eradicate
the primary prey species (mice,
ground squirrels, and rabbits). Retain
populations at levels compatible with
your economic activities on the land.
Swift Fox Diet
Rabbits 60%
Rodents 30%
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Assistance Programs
A number of programs are available from government
agencies and private organizations to assist
landowners and land managers in protecting, creating,
and enhancing habitat for birds in the shortgrass
prairie. Please see our website for a more complete
list of assistance programs (, or call
Conservation Easement
• Conservation easements are often used to keep
agricultural land in production, giving landowners
financial support for not developing their land.
• Landowner voluntarily transfers (by donation or
sale) certain development and land-use rights for
all or part of their land to a qualifying conservation
organization or government agency, while retaining
title and all other rights to the land. Both parties
agree to the details of the contract, which can include
continued operations on the land, such as farming or
• Conservation easement donors may be eligible for
income tax deductions. Property with a conservation
easement in place may also be eligible for reduced
property and estate taxes. See IRS Guidelines for
specific details.
• Some organizations that accept donated easements
and/or purchase easements on the plains are:
Colorado Cattleman’s Association Land Trust, The
Nature Conservancy, Colorado Division of Wildlife,
Montana Land Reliance, American Farmland Trust,
and Centennial Land Trust.
• For more information, contact the Land
Trust Alliance, 1319 F Street NW, Suite 501,
Washington, DC 20004-1106; phone 202-638-4725
Natural Resources Conservation Service
• NRCS administers the Farm Bill which includes
about 20 agricultural conservation programs
nationwide. There are about 3,000 local districts
across the country.
• NRCS provides educational, technical, and financial
assistance to landowners who wish to protect and
enhance wildlife habitat through enrollment in a Farm
Bill program.
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• Programs that involve wildlife habitat components
include: Conservation of Private Grazing Land (CPGL),
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental
Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wetlands Reserve
Program (WRP), and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program
• Projects included under these programs involve
retirement of cropland, establishment of grass
cover, retirement of wetlands from grazing, wetland
enhancement and restoration, and grassland renovation
and management.
• Depending upon the program, the landowner may
provide cost-share, in-kind contributions, or in some
instances, receive incentive payments for enrollment.
• Contact your local NRCS office for more information
Partners for Fish and Wildlife
• Private lands program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
• Provides technical and financial assistance for wetland
and riparian restoration, nest structures or nesting islands,
grazing plans that benefit wildlife, food and shelter for
wildlife, native plant restoration, water level management,
and more.
• The landowner’s part of the cost-share can be cash or
in-kind (i.e., labor, equipment use, etc..)
• Work is accomplished by an active coalition of willing
landowners, non-governmental organizations, tribes, and
state and federal agencies.
• The emphasis is on landowner choice and blending
profitable agriculture with wildlife conservation.
• Contact Bill Noonan (Colorado) at 303-2752435, or for more information check the website at
Pheasants Forever
• Provides up to 100% of the cost to establish or
maintain habitat
• Emphaisis is on pheasants and other upland game birds,
but managing their habitat benefits other birds with
similar habitat needs, such as Upland Sandpipers
• Contact your local Pheasants Forever chapter, or check
their website (
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Candidate Conservation Agreement
with Assurances (CCAA)
• Agreement for landowner to provide habitat for
species that are candidates for listing under the
Endangered Species Act (ESA).
• The landowner agrees to enhance habitat and, in
return, receives cost-share funding to implement
management practices. Landowner also receives
assurances that if the species becomes listed under the
ESA, his/her lands will not be subject to restrictions
imposed by the ESA.
• Contact the nearest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
office for more information ( Region 6
(CO, KS, NE, WY, SD): 303-236-7920, and Region 2
(OK, NM, TX): 505-248-6282.
High Plains Partnership
•A Branch of Partners for Fish and Wildlife (USFWS)
that focuses on rare and declining species on the plains,
such as those outlined in this manual.
• Uses CCAAs as a conservation tool. This is a mutually
drafted agreement between the landowner and High
Plains Partnership designed to improve habitat for rare
• The USFWS provides cost-share for habitat
improvements on private lands. The landowner
contribution may be “in-kind.”
• Participating landowners receive the “assurance” that
should any of the species managed for on their lands be
listed under the ESA, they would be exempt from any
land-use restrictions under the ESA.
• Contact Steve Arey, USFWS, 918-581-7458, ext. 239.
WILD Nebraska—Partnerships for Wildlife
Prairie Partners
• Provides technical assistance for the management of
species in this manual.
• Provides inventory for shortgrass prairie birds.
• Provides cost-share assistance for habitat
enhancement projects on private lands, through
cooperative agreements.
• Contact Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, 14500
Lark Bunting Lane, Brighton, CO 80603; phone 303659-4348 (
Cooperative Habitat Improvement Program
• Designed to assist landowners wishing to develop or
improve wildlife habitat.
• Offered statewide by the Colorado Division of
Wildlife (CDOW).
• CDOW will provide technical assistance and as much
as $4,000.00 per landowner in financial assistance.
• CDOW will also provide assistance to landowners
regarding other cost-share programs.
• Can be used as a stand-alone program for small
projects, however many projects can be supplemented
and improved by partnering with other habitat
programs such as the Conservation Programs within
Farm Bill and Partners for Fish and Wildlife.
• A flexible program offering landowners several
options to create habitat for a specific species. A few
examples of habitat projects eligible for this program
are small woody plantings, grass plantings, wetland
enhancements, and stream improvements. Match: 15%
landowner cash or in-kind, $4,000 cap.
• Deadline: On-going
• Contact your local CDOW office.
• Private lands program of the Nebraska Game and
Parks Commision (NGPC)
• Provides technical and financial assistance
• Wildlife habitat development and management
• Transition land-use payments
• Public access option
• Contact your local NGPC office for
more information, or check the website at
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Colorado Species Conservation Partnership
• A far-reaching species protection program developed
with the U.S. Department of the Interior by The Great
Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund (GOCO), in partnership
with the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), private
landowners and non-governmental organizations
throughout Colorado.
• Goals are to prevent further decline of Colorado’s
wildlife species, meet species conservation goals that
secure recovery of declining species in the state, reduce the necessity of further listing of new species
under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and down-list
and delist species listed as threatened or endangered
under ESA.
• Brings together species protection and land
conservation tools and incentives not available without
the partnership.
• Protection strategy entails use of habitat conservation
easements providing incentives to private landowners
to actively assist with management and protection of
Colorado’s declining species.
• Conservation easements used to guarantee that
landscapes will remain intact to provide fundamental
wildlife resources on a long-term basis.
• Private landowners have the opportunity to choose
either term or perpetual conservation easements.
• All conservation easements within the program will
have an accompanying management plan that will be
agreed upon by the landowner and CDOW.
• Landowner preference and biological concerns
drive these options.
• Species conservation goals of CSCP over the
long-term will recognize that habitat protection
efforts should not undermine the financial
viability of an agricultural operation.
• For more information regarding CSCP or
other landowner programs offered through
the Division of Wildlife, please contact: Ken Morgan
Private Lands Habitat Specialist
[email protected]
(303) 291-7404
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In Canada...
Native Prairie Stewardship Program
• Voluntary stewardship agreements with landowners.
• Provides educational materials and technical
• Contact Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation
Corporation, 2022 Cornwall St., Room 101, Regina, SK
S4P 2K5; phone 306-787-0726 (
Operation Grassland Community
• Provides educational materials and technical
• Incorporates Operation Burrowing Owl.
• Special focus on Burrowing Owls, Loggerhead
Shrikes, and other uncommon or declining grassland
• Contact Operation Grassland Community, Box 1644,
Brooks, AB T1R 1C5 (
Additional information on programs in the U.S. is
available from your state wildlife agency, Soil and Water
Conservation District offices, extension service, and state
lands offices.
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Prairie Partners
Prairie Partners is an RMBO program that works with
private landowners and asks their voluntary cooperation
to conserve shortgrass prairie wildlife. Because most of
the shortgrass prairie is privately owned, landowners are
the key to conservation. Landowners choose their level of
involvement, ranging from allowing us to inventory their
land, to implementing management practices described in
this manual, to enrolling in one of the programs outlined
in the Assistance Programs section. Prairie Partners
encourages conservation on private lands through:
Colorado Birding Trail-
This is a partnership between the Nebraska Game & Parks
Commission and RMBO. The NSPP provides technical
and financial assistance to landowners for at-risk prairie
species’ habitat conservation and enhancement in the
panhandle of Nebraska. Assistance can be used for:
• Grazing management (cross-fence, pipeline, tanks,
• Grassland restoration (tillage, cover crop, reseeding of
native plant species);
• Prescribed fire (to enhance native plant communities);
• Tree clearing and thinning (to remove trees encroaching
on grasslands); and
• Mountain Plover nest marking.
An survey of shortgrass prairie birds, other wildlife, and
their habitats.
We involve private landowners in prairie conservation
through personal one-on-one conversations, workshops,
and presentations to landowner groups.
For landowners interested in habitat enhancement
projects, we provide technical advice and help landowners
identify other sources of technical and financial assistance.
We develop projects that provide win-win solutions
by helping landowners with their operations while
simultaneously enhancing habitat. Please see the Assistance
Programs section for further details.
Mountain Plover-
We conduct Mountain Plover nest marking on cultivated
land during the nesting season. The equipment need only
miss nests by inches. Call toll-free 1-888-575-6837 during
Mountain Plover nesting season (mid-April through July
4th) and an RMBO biologist will survey your land, mark
nests, and provide a map. This is a voluntary opportunity
to help a species of conservation concern. This program is
available in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska.
We provide publications to help raise awareness for
prairie wildlife conservation needs including this manual,
the Pocket Guide to Prairie Birds, and the Stewardship
Resource Guide for private lands.
We also encourage economic diversification on private
land through opportunities including the Colorado Birding
Trail. To nominate your land for the birding trail, please
contact RMBO or visit the web site
This is a free opportunity to diversify your economic base
by attracting nature enthusiasts to your property.
Nebraska Shortgrass Prairie Partnership
In Summary-
Our goal is to engage you in the conservation of birds and
other wildlife, build partnerships, and work collaboratively
to create win-win solutions in shortgrass prairie
Private lands, as a whole, make a tremendous contribution
to shortgrass prairie habitat conservation, but this is
largely unrecognized. The Prairie Partners program is
eliminating the gap in information that exists on private
lands by asking permission to inventory private range. We
can document the number of acres supporting prairie bird
species, numbers of birds, and provide better scientific
information. We work in Wyoming, Colorado, New
Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South
Dakota, thus covering the breeding range of many of the
shortgrass prairie bird species. Information collected on
private lands is summarized and given to representative
natural resource agencies; individual landowners are
not identified. Information collected on private lands is
a powerful tool that can help keep common species
common, and less abundant species from becoming listed
as threatened or endangered. This is an effective way to
keep management on a local level, in your hands.
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Appendix A
Mowing Technique
Native Prairie
At the time of harvest, reduce the speed of your machine and use a cutting pattern that will give the birds a chance
to escape from the cutting device. The most effective technique is to start from the edge of the plot and use a backand-forth pattern to push birds toward uncut areas, such as native prairie. The birds will use the standing cover for
concealment until they reach the native prairie.
Flush Bar Construction
Flushing bars mounted on the front of mowing devices can reduce the number of birds killed when harvesting a
field. The pictures here show how a flushing bar is connected to a self-propelled hay mower. To obtain specific
information on how to build and mount a flushing bar on your tractor, please contact: Ducks Unlimited Canada /
Alberta Prairie CARE office in Brooks at 403-362-4827 ( Photos courtesy Ducks Unlimited
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Appendix B
Stock Tank Escape Ladder for Wildlife
The design is somewhat like a diamond, where the
ramp length is 28” and the “wings” to be bent down are
32” across. The ramp is made of 14-gauge expanded
metal with 3/4” mesh. A pattern can be made from
sheet metal, which is clamped on the expanded metal
and used as a template for cutting. One 4’x10’ sheet of
expanded metal will yield six ladders.
After cutting out the design with a cutting torch, the
metal is bent with a metal brake 4” between bends to
make the sloped side or “wings” for the ramp. A
3/16” rod can be used to form the hangers for round
rim and rimless tanks or use a bolt, washer, and nut to
secure the ladder to the tank.
Another option for hanging is to leave a 3-4” tail on
your diamond-shaped cutout making it more kiteshaped (see diagram below). After bending the wings,
bend the tail in a half-circle and use it as a hanger. The
ladders can be painted or dipped with a neutral color
farm implement paint to prevent rusting.
Dead Red-tailed Hawk in stock tank.
If interested in ordering fabricated ladders contact
Horse Creek Fabrications of Karval, Colorado, at
[email protected]
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Appendix C
Ferruginous Hawk Nest Platform and Tree Crib
It is important to recognize that historically the
Ferruginous Hawk has preferred to nest on the ground
using bison bones and large sticks to construct a nest.
Now, however, about half of all Ferruginous Hawk
nests are located in trees and shrubs. Most of these
trees were planted during the homesteading days
and are now old and dying. We recognize that trees
were not as prominent in the past on the shortgrass
prairie but are important today for nesting Ferruginous
Hawks. Discretion must be used when constructing a
nest platform for the Ferruginous Hawk in the prairie.
Nest platforms alone will not bring Ferruginous Hawks
to your property. You should evaluate several factors
before constructing a nest platform:
1. Records of Ferruginous Hawks on your property.
Historical and current records of nesting Ferruginous
Hawks are a good indicator that you have suitable
2. Disturbance near the nest platform. Ferruginous
Ferruginous Hawk Nest Platform
Hawks are sensitive to disturbance and have been
known to abandon nests when a prolonged disturbance
(e.g., construction) is within a mile.
3. Availability of prey. Small mammals are the primary
prey items of the Ferruginous Hawk. Habitat to
maintain populations of these animals must be available
to provide a food supply during the breeding season.
4. Condition of current nest tree. Ferruginous Hawks
reuse nests and if the nest tree is old and dying the nest
will be lost with the tree.
The nest platform and nest tree crib (pictured below)
are tools that can be used to assist in Ferruginous Hawk
conservation. The nest platform will provide the hawk
with additional nesting opportunities if nest sites are
limited. The nest tree crib provides protection from
livestock rubbing up against the tree, hence prolonging
the life of the nest site. Contact the Rocky Mountain
Bird Observatory for more detailed information or to
assist in Ferruginous Hawk conservation on your land.
Ferruginous Hawk Nest Tree Crib
Photos courtesy of Dan Garcia
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Pictures of some other species mentioned in the text.
Great Horned Owl
Northern Harrier
Rough-legged Hawk
Horned Lark
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Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Sharing Your Land with Prairie Wildlife
Funding for this project came from the Wildlife Habitat Management Institute, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado
Division of Wildlife, LaSalle Adams Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Turner Foundation, Playa Lakes Joint Venture,
National Forest Foundation, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Environmental Trust, USDA Sustainable Agriculture
Research and Education, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Adams
County Cultural Council of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. The maps were created by Tammy VerCauteren with
ArcView software donated to RMBO by the Conservation Technology Support Program. The graphics presenting bird diets were
based on a chart created by Lisa Hutchins for The Warbler, the newsletter of the Audubon Society of Greater Denver; Larry Semo
researched diets of species new to the third edition. Valuable input was provided by RMBO staff: Mike Carter, Doug Faulkner,
Seth Gallagher, Tony Leukering, Dana Ripper, Jeff Sprock, and Jennie Duberstein. Thanks to the reviewers who made many helpful
comments: Shannon Albeke, Beth Dillon, John Dinan, Herman Garcia, Wendell Gilgert, Stephanie Jones, Fritz Knopf, Noe Marymor,
Cynthia Melcher, Ken Morgan, David Pashley, Brian Peers, Duke Phillips, Majda Seuss, John Sidle, Terri Skadeland, Arley and Trudy
Smith, and Dan Svingen.
Illustrations: Louise Zemaitis and Sherrie York
Layout: Sherrie York and Tony Leukering
Photographs: Shannon Albeke (habitat photos), Seth
Gallagher (habitat photos), Scott W. Gillihan (habitat
photos), Tony Leukering (most bird photos) and
Christopher L. Wood (photo of Horned Lark)
Copyright © 2006 by Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
Third Edition Edits: Tony Leukering
Prairie Partners
Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
14500 Lark Bunting Lane
Brighton, CO 80603
Shortgrass Prairie Bird Conservation
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