|McCown's Longspur by Shawn Billerman|
Colonial burrowing herbivores can modify vegetation structure, create belowground refugia, and generate landscape heterogeneity, thereby affecting the distribution and abundance of associated species. Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) are such a species, and they may strongly affect the abundance and composition of grassland bird communities. We examined how prairie dog colonies in the North American Great Plains affect bird species and community composition. Areas occupied by prairie dogs, characterized by low percent cover of grass, high percent cover of bare soil, and low vegetation height and density, supported a breeding bird community that differed substantially from surrounding areas that lacked prairie dogs. Bird communities on colony sites had significantly greater densities of large-bodied carnivores (Burrowing Owls [Athene cunicularia], Mountain Plovers, [Charadrius montanus], and Killdeer [Charadrius vociferus]) and omnivores consisting of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) and McCown's Longspurs (Rhynchophanes mccownii) than bird communities off colony sites. Bird communities off colony sites were dominated by small-bodied insectivorous sparrows (Ammodramus spp.) and omnivorous Lark Buntings (Calamospiza melanocorys), Vesper Sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus), and Lark Sparrows (Chondestes grammacus). Densities of 3 species of conservation concern and 1 game species were significantly higher on colony sites than off colony sites, and the strength of prairie dog effects was consistent across the northern Great Plains. Vegetation modification by prairie dogs sustains a diverse suite of bird species in these grasslands. Collectively, our findings and those from previous studies show that areas in the North American Great Plains with prairie dog colonies support higher densities of at least 9 vertebrate species than sites without colonies. Prairie dogs affect habitat for these species through multiple pathways, including creation of belowground refugia, supply of prey for specialized predators, modification of vegetation structure within colonies, and increased landscape heterogeneity.