Landscape Ecology

, Volume 33, Issue 10, pp 1799–1813 | Cite as

Contrasting impacts of invasive plants and human-altered landscape context on nest survival and brood parasitism of a grassland bird

  • Scott B. Maresh Nelson
  • Jaime J. Coon
  • Courtney J. Duchardt
  • James R. Miller
  • Diane M. Debinski
  • Walter H. Schacht
Research Article



Humans have altered grasslands in recent decades through crop conversion, woody encroachment, and plant invasions. Concurrently, grassland birds have experienced range-wide declines. Studies have reported effects of plant invasions and land conversion on nest ecology, but few have assessed relative impacts of these changes.


We compared impacts of invasive plants and landscape context on nest survival of a grassland songbird, the dickcissel (Spiza americana). We also compared effects on parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and tested whether parasitism affects survival.


From 2013–2016, we monitored 477 dickcissel nests. We measured nest-site vegetation (including woody plants, tall fescue Schedonorus arundinaceous, and other invasive grasses) and measured landscape context at broad scales.


Nest survival declined with increasing tall fescue cover at nest sites, and parasitism was more common at nests with greater fescue and woody cover. Some evidence suggested a negative effect of row-crop cover within 1000 m on nest survival, but no landscape patterns unambiguously affected survival. Woodland cover and wooded-edge prevalence were associated with reduced parasitism risk. Parasitized nests had smaller clutches, failed more frequently, and produced fewer fledglings than non-parasitized nests.


Determining the impacts of invasive plants and other anthropogenic changes on grassland birds will aid in prioritizing management to improve habitat quality. Our results indicate that optimizing landscape context around habitats may not affect dickcissel nest survival strongly, except perhaps through effects on parasitism. In contrast, controlling tall fescue and shrubs within grasslands could benefit birds by increasing nest success and reducing parasitism.


Brown-headed cowbird Dickcissel Grassland birds Spiza americana Tall fescue Woody encroachment 



We are grateful to I. Bradley, J. Capozzelli, O. Garza, D. Jen, M. Kneitel, K. Malone, A. Meyer, T. Park, T. Swartz, B. Vizzachero, and A. West for field assistance. We thank J. Rusk, S. Rusk, and R. Harr for managing the pastures; T.J. Benson, T. Lyons, and T. Jones for analytical guidance; T.J. Benson, J. Fraterrigo, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript; P. Sterner and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for access to their lands; and the undergraduates who helped enter data. Partial funding was provided by the Competitive State Wildlife Grants program U-D F14AP00012 in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program; by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number ILLU-875-918; and by awards to SBN and JJC from the Frances M. Peacock Scholarship for Native Bird Habitat from the Garden Club of America and from the Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education, North-Central Region [GSP15-038]. Our nest monitoring procedures were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (IACUC; Protocol #14073).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 18 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 18 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (DOCX 24 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott B. Maresh Nelson
    • 1
  • Jaime J. Coon
    • 1
  • Courtney J. Duchardt
    • 1
    • 2
  • James R. Miller
    • 1
    • 3
  • Diane M. Debinski
    • 4
    • 5
  • Walter H. Schacht
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental SciencesUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  2. 2.Program in EcologyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA
  3. 3.Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation BiologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal BiologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  5. 5.Department of EcologyMontana State UniversityBozemanUSA
  6. 6.Department of Agronomy and HorticultureUniversity of Nebraska-LincolnLincolnUSA

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