Prairie ecosystems and the grassland birds that rely on them for habitat may be particularly vulnerable to rapid changes in climate. Extensive portions of prairie have already been lost due to agriculture and urbanization, and as a result grassland birds have declined more than any other bird group in the last four decades. Now, climate change could exacerbate existing threats to these birds as temperatures in certain prairie ecosystems are expected to rise and extreme weather events, such as drought, could become more common.
The goal of this project was to develop a framework to identify demographic sensitivities and assess the vulnerability of grassland bird species to future climate change. To do so, the researchers developed a strong partnership among managers and researchers to understand how climate change might impact the conservation and management planning of grassland birds throughout the Northeast CASC region and identify potentially vulnerable species. Using input from managers, the team focused their efforts on two grassland indicator species of high conservation interest: Henslow’s Sparrows and Bobolinks. They developed spatially-explicit and temporally dynamic species distribution models for these indicator species and evaluated the effects of past and future climate on their populations. Finally, they studied how weather and extreme events (e.g., drought and flooding) effect the breeding success of grassland birds across North America.
By incorporating information on future climate change, the project team has identified regions where Henslow's Sparrows, a species of increasing conservation concern, are likely to face unsuitable conditions for reproduction. In addition, they have identified areas that will serve as likely refugia for this species in the future. The researchers have performed the first-ever exploration of the synergistic effects of weather and grassland patch size, the most common currency of grassland bird conservation and management. They have found that large grasslands serve as an important buffer of extreme temperature and precipitation on grassland bird nesting success.