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1 July 2001 Ecology and Conservation of Grassland Birds of the Western Hemisphere
Eric K. Bollinger
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Ecology and Conservation of Grassland Birds of the Western Hemisphere—Edited by Peter D. Vickery and James R. Herkert. 1999. Proceedings of a Conference, Tulsa, Oklahoma, October 1995. Studies in Avian Biology No. 19. Cooper Ornithological Society, Camarillo, California. vii + 299 pp., numerous figures. ISBN 1-891276-08-5. Paper, $25.00; ISBN 1-891276-11-5. Cloth, $39.50.—Within the past 10–15 years, the widespread declines of grassland birds throughout the Western Hemisphere have become well known. For example, Knopf (1994:251) states that North American grassland birds have experienced “steeper, more consistent, and more geographically widespread declines than any other behavioral or ecological guild.” Similar population trends are reported for birds of South American grasslands. Those declines have generated a flurry of research, some of which is reported in this book. This book, therefore, represents a timely contribution to our knowledge of the ecology and conservation of grassland birds.

This book comprises a series of 34 papers originally presented at a two-day conference held in Tulsa, Oklahoma in October 1995, and loosely organized into four major sections (Introduction, Ecology, Breeding Ecology, and Latin America). The Breeding Ecology section is by far the largest and is further organized into subsections on habitat selection, fire, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), management, and data collection and analysis. Each chapter can stand alone (e.g. each has its own literature cited sections, and abstracts in both English and Spanish). Most chapters represent the results of original research conducted by the 66 authors throughout the Western Hemisphere. The book is written and organized much like a typical scientific journal, and the target audience is the scientific community. As is true of most edited books of this nature, the chapters are a somewhat haphazard and eclectic mixture of studies on topics ranging from nocturnal migration calls and thermal aspects of nest sites, to summaries of continental population trends from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). This results in some important subjects being largely ignored (e.g. virtually none of the studies looked at hayfields—currently a major habitat type for grassland birds in North America—or at the effects of mowing) and other subjects covered in some detail (e.g. five papers on the effects of fire). As is also frequently true of most of these collections, the reader is left with the impression that the truly good stuff from many of these studies will likely be published elsewhere in more prestigious outlets. Despite those limitations, the chapters typically are based on interesting and solid science. The book is extremely well edited and is virtually error-free. The figures are uniformly of high quality. The only minor exceptions are the population-trend maps found in the chapter by Peterjohn and Sauer (two of the three trend classes are hard to distinguish). Although the inclusion of a large number of maps no doubt necessitated their small size, distinguishing the categories was difficult. Also, the cover photograph of Greater Rheas (Rhea americana) seems inappropriate given that none of the papers dealt with that species. However, each of the four major sections contained noteworthy chapters, some of which I will discuss below.

The introductory chapter on the conservation of grassland birds in the Western Hemisphere by Vickery et al. was one of the highlights of the book. It outlines and summarizes the locations (and terminology) of the various grasslands of the Western Hemisphere and contains lists of the obligate and facultative grassland birds of both North and South America. Useful definitions are also given for grasslands and grassland birds. Although one can quibble with these definitions (e.g. I am not sure I would include sedge-dominated tundra with more “traditional” grasslands) and lists (jaegers, Stercorarius spp., as obligate grassland birds?), they are a valuable reference and an excellent starting point for more specialized or restrictive lists. In addition, the chapter summarizes likely causes of population declines, current and future threats to grassland birds, and conservation strategies and future research needs.

The second section (Ecology) begins with a useful summary by Peterjohn and Sauer of current population status of grassland birds in North America. They report trends based on 30 years of BBS data. Askins' paper on history of eastern grassland birds is fascinating and based on impressive historical research, although one should be forewarned that it is very similar to an early chapter in his recent book (Askins 2000). I also enjoyed the two papers by Rotenberry and Knick and one by O'Connor et al. because they remind us of potential overriding importance of landscape effects on bird-habitat associations, and that those effects are not restricted to forest birds.

The Breeding Ecology section also had several interesting chapters. For example, the chapter by Bock et al. on grassland birds at a suburban edge contains one of the best demonstrations to date of reduced densities of grassland birds near certain types of habitat edges. The five-year study by Herkert and Glass on fire effects on Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) should be very valuable to managers interested in this enigmatic grassland bird, as should Winter's paper on Baird's Sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii). Igl and Johnson's contribution (on Le Conte's Sparrow, Ammodramus leconteii and CRP fields) shows us that climate variation may lead to dramatic annual fluctuations in grassland bird abundance whereas Koford provides an important assessment of the value of CRP grasslands in North Dakota and Minnesota. Also in this section was Temple et al.'s treatment of effects of grazing on nesting birds in Midwestern pastures. Their “probird” grazing management system provides concrete management guidelines that may benefit the especially vulnerable grassland bird populations of the Midwest. Finally, I thought the three papers in the Data Collection and Analysis subsection were especially noteworthy. I was intrigued by Evans and Mellinger's paper suggesting that the measurement of vocalizations produced by night-migrating birds has potential as a monitoring tool. Peterson and Best provide important warnings regarding the interpretation of perturbation experiments (including the need for controls, pretreatment data, and long-term posttreatment monitoring). Further, Rotella et al. discuss the importance of estimating detectability (through estimating distances in which birds can be detected) in avian censuses.

The last section, entitled simply Latin America, presents some much needed information on the ecology and conservation of grassland birds south of the United States. Papers by Cavalcanti (on the Cerrado region of Brazil), Tubaro and Gabelli (on the Pampas Meadowlark, Sturnella defilippii), and da Silva (on seedeaters of the genus Sporophila), among others, should help expose North American readers to the fact that grassland-bird problems are not limited to our continent. Basili and Temple (through two papers in this section) also highlight the fact that population declines of one North American grassland breeder, the Dickcissel (Spiza americana) may result from human-caused mortality on their Venezuelan wintering grounds. However, that section, in particular, would have benefited from more contributions related to grassland birds spanning the Americas.

In conclusion, this book has much to offer avian ecologists, especially those interested in grassland ecosystems. It is well worth its relatively modest cost and should be included in all university libraries.

Literature Cited


R. A. Askins 2000. Restoring North America's Birds: Lessons from Landscape Ecology. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. Google Scholar


F. L. Knopf 1994. Avian assemblages on altered grasslands. Studies in Avian Biology 15:247–257. Google Scholar


Eric K. Bollinger "Ecology and Conservation of Grassland Birds of the Western Hemisphere," The Auk 118(3), 806-808, (1 July 2001).[0806:]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 July 2001
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