A place to call home

Meet the star of our show for today — Henslow’s Sparrow.   It is a colorful bird with a lot of yellow on its head, and a rather thick beak and short neck, that inhabits tallgrass prairie in the spring and summer and then retreats to its winter home in the southeastern U.S.

henslow's sparrow, Frontenac State Park, MN

This is a rare bird in the Minnesota prairies, or in most midwestern prairies for that matter. Populations have declined precipitously as their preferred habitat has disappeared, and even when birds breed in tallgrass prairies one year, they may not be present the next.  Why? 

It seems that although Henslow’s Sparrow does prefer tallgrass prairie as a nesting site to raise the next crop of offspring, not just any prairie will do for this bird.  It must be a rather large acreage, and it must have lots of standing dead stems still poking up through the deep thatch of last year’s grass growth.  In fact, this bird is rather fussy about its home, and numbers of nests are directly correlated with how long ago that patch of prairie was burned.  They are so fussy about the exact structure of their tallgrass prairie home, they are willing to tolerate breeding in small colonies of closely spaced nests.  Some researchers feel the particular grass structure of their favored breeding sites protects them better from predation and the nest parasitism of Cowbirds.

henslow's sparrow, Frontenac State Park, MN

Yes, we like a lot of dead, tallgrass stems still standing, thanks. The better to suppress the current year of grass growth and make it easier for us to scuttle about, hidden from view on the prairie floor.”

It’s a precarious balance between burning the prairie often enough to suppress the growth of woody vegetation and keep it in prairie, and burning infrequently enough to satisfy the needs of birds like this one, which require a lot of standing dead biomass in their prairie homes. What’s a prairie manager to do?

Derr sandhills prairie - prescribed fire.  March 2012

Burn only part of the prairie at a time, leaving that standing biomass in other parts?  Derr sandhills prairie – prescribed fire. March 2012. From the Prairie Ecologist.

Whatever humans do to protect or conserve one species, inevitably, it seems to  come at the expense of others.  But one solution is to simply conserve more natural habitat — one parcel at a time, until there is a substantial enough acreage to manage for multiple species at one time.