February 5, 2019, Vermont Center for Ecostudies
Studying birds that nest in grasslands on the firing ranges and runways of active military installations is not for the faint of heart, but it proved to be a successful strategy for solving some vexing migration mysteries. Fundamental questions regarding the timing and choice of migration routes, and what that means for conservation of grassland bird populations have been surprisingly difficult to answer—until now. A new paper published in Ecology and Evolution sheds light on the annual movements of two grassland bird species and yields surprising results that may help transform the way we manage grassland bird populations, both across international borders and throughout their annual cycle.
Researchers from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, with support from the U.S. Department of Defense Legacy Resource Management Program, have published the most extensive examination of the nonbreeding movement ecology for Grasshopper Sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) and Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) to date. By filling in fundamental knowledge gaps, this research will pave the way for cooperative endeavors to slow the decline of these grassland birds in the Midwest and Eastern United States.
"These results are a potential game changer for re-imagining conservation strategies for these grassland birds," explained Vermont Center for Ecostudies biologist Jason Hill. "Grassland bird management has been overwhelmingly focused on improving conditions on the breeding grounds. This is understandable especially for Grasshopper Sparrows, which are very hard to find outside of the breeding season when they're not singing. Our research reveals migration routes and specific wintering locations for several populations of Grasshopper Sparrows, and opens the door for a collaborative cross-border approach to managing them year-round."
Some migratory grassland birds spend nearly half their lives away from their breeding grounds, yet we know relatively little about this part of their annual cycle. To investigate the migratory patterns of these two species, the biologists deployed geolocators on 180 Grasshopper Sparrows and 29 Eastern Meadowlarks at Konza Prairie in Kansas, and at six U.S. Department of Defense installations across the species' breeding ranges. They were able to retrieve location data on 34 Grasshopper Sparrows and five Eastern Meadowlarks.