, Volume 138, Issue 4, pp 592–602 | Cite as

Black-tailed prairie dogs and the structure of avian communities on the shortgrass plains

Community Ecology


We tested the hypothesis that black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) influence avian community structure on the shortgrass prairie. We surveyed 36 prairie dog towns and 36 paired sites without prairie dogs during summer and fall of 1997, 1998, and 1999 in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Our surveys totaled 9,040 individual observations for 73 avian species. Significantly distinct avian communities were present on prairie dog towns when compared to sites within four different macrohabitats of the surrounding landscape: open rangeland, scrub/sandsage (Artemisia filifolia) habitats, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plots, and fallow crop fields. Relative densities of all bird species combined was higher on prairie dog towns versus paired sites in summer and fall. Mean species richness of birds was significantly higher on prairie dog towns than paired sites during summer, but there were no significant differences in fall. Open rangeland had the highest mean species richness in fall. Assemblages of avian communities differed significantly between prairie dog towns and the four macrohabitat types during summer. Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), horned larks (Eremophila alpestris), and meadowlarks (Sturnella spp.) were positively and significantly associated with prairie dog towns during summer, while horned larks and ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) were significantly associated with prairie dog towns during fall. Even in their current remnant state, black-tailed prairie dogs continue to play a significant role in the assembly of ecological communities across the Great Plains. Conservation of prairie dogs goes well beyond a single species, and is an important strategy for the preservation of the prairie ecosystem as a whole.


Biological diversity Conservation Fragmentation Grassland birds Keystone species 


  1. Agnew WD, Uresk W, Hansen RM (1986) Flora and fauna associated with prairie dog colonies and adjacent ungrazed mixed-grass prairie in western South Dakota. J Range Manage 39:135–139Google Scholar
  2. Allison PS, Leary AW, Bechard MJ (1995) Observations of wintering Ferruginous Hawks (Buteo regalis) feeding of prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in the Texas Panhandle. Texas J Sci 47:235–237Google Scholar
  3. Askins RA (1993) Population trends in grassland, shrubland, and forest birds in eastern North America. Curr Ornithol 11:1–34Google Scholar
  4. Askins RA (2000) Restoring North America’s birds: lessons from landscape ecology. Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn.Google Scholar
  5. Bak JM, Boykin KG, Thompson BC, Daniel DL (2001) Distribution of wintering Ferruginous Hawks (Buteo regalis) in relation to black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies in southern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua. J Raptor Res 35:124–129Google Scholar
  6. Barko VA, Shaw JH, Leslie DM, Jr. (1999) Birds associated with black-tailed prairie dog colonies in southern shortgrass prairie. Southwest Nat 44:484–489Google Scholar
  7. Benedict RA, Freeman PW, Genoways HH (1996) Prairie legacies – Mammals. In: Samson FB, Knopf FL (eds) Prairie conservation. Island Press, Washington, D.C., pp 149–166Google Scholar
  8. Bibby CJ, Burgess ND, Hill DA (1992) Bird census techniques. Academic Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  9. Blair WF, Hubbell TH (1938) The biotic districts of Oklahoma. Am Mid Nat 20:425–454Google Scholar
  10. Butts KO (1976) Burrowing Owls wintering in the Oklahoma Panhandle. Auk 93:510–516Google Scholar
  11. Collins SL (1992) Fire frequency and community heterogeneity in tallgrass prairie vegetation. Ecology 73:2001–2006Google Scholar
  12. Desmond MJ, Savidge JA, Seibert TF (1995) Spatial patterns of Burrowing Owl (Speotyto cunicularia) nests within black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) towns. Can J Zool 73:1375–1379Google Scholar
  13. Emlen JT (1971) Population densities of birds derived from transect counts. Auk 88:323–342Google Scholar
  14. Emlen JT (1977 ) Estimating breeding season bird densities from transect counts. Auk 94:455–468Google Scholar
  15. Goodwin HT (1995) Pliocene-Pleistocene biogeographic history of prairie dogs, genus Cynomys (Sciuridae). J Mammal 76:100–122Google Scholar
  16. Hoogland JL (1995) The black-tailed prairie dog: social life of a burrowing mammal. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  17. Hoogland JL (1996) Cynomys ludovicianus. Mammalian Species Account No. 535. American Society of MammalogistsGoogle Scholar
  18. Kantrud HA, Kologiski RL (1982) Effects of soils and grazing on breeding birds of uncultivated upland grasslands of the northern Great Plains. Wildlife Research Report 15. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar
  19. Knopf FL (1994) Avian assemblages on altered grasslands. Studies Avian Biol 15:247–257Google Scholar
  20. Knopf FL (1996a) Prairie legacies – Birds. In: Samson FB, Knopf FL (eds) Prairie conservation. Island Press, Washington, D.C., pp 135–148Google Scholar
  21. Knopf FL (1996b) Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus). In: Poole A, Gill F (eds) The Birds of North America, no. 211. The Birds of North America, Philadelphia, Pa.Google Scholar
  22. Knopf FL, Samson FB (1995) Conserving the biotic integrity of the Great Plains. In: Johnson SR, Bouzaher A (eds) Conservation of Great Plains ecosystems: current science, future options. Kluwer, Boston, Mass., pp 121–133Google Scholar
  23. Knowles CJ, Stoner CJ, Gieb SP (1982) Selective use of black-tailed prairie dog towns by Mountain Plovers. Condor 84:71–74Google Scholar
  24. Kotliar NB (2000) Application of the new keystone-species concept to prairie dogs: how well does it work? Conserv Biol 14:1715–1721CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kotliar NB, Baker BW, Whicker AD, Plumb G (1999) A critical review of assumptions about the prairie dog as a keystone species. Environ Manage 24:177–192CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Kretzer JE, Cully JF Jr (2001) Effects of black-tailed prairie dogs on reptiles and amphibians in Kansas shortgrass prairie. Southwest Nat 46:171–177Google Scholar
  27. Lawton JH, Jones CG (1995) Linking species and ecosystems: organisms as ecosystem engineers. In: Jones CG, Lawton JH (eds) Linking species and ecosystems. Chapman & Hall, New York, pp 141–150Google Scholar
  28. Lockwood JL, McKinney ML (eds) (2001) Biotic homogenization. Kluwer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Lomolino MV, Smith, GA (2001) Dynamic biogeography of prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) towns near the edge of their range. J Mammal 82:937–945Google Scholar
  30. Lomolino MV, Smith GA (2004) Terrestrial vertebrate communities at black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) towns. Biol Conserv 115:89–100Google Scholar
  31. Lomolino MV, Channell R, Perault DR, Smith GA (2001) Downsizing nature: anthropogenic dwarfing of species and ecosystems. In: Lockwood JL, McKinney ML (eds) Biotic homogenization. Kluwer, New York, pp 223–243Google Scholar
  32. Manzano-Fischer P, List R, Ceballos G (1999) Grassland birds in prairie-dog towns in northwestern Chihuahua, Mexico. Studies Avian Biol 19:263–271Google Scholar
  33. McIntyre NE (1995) Effects of forest patch size on avian diversity. Landscape Ecol 10:85–99Google Scholar
  34. McPherson GR (1995) The role of fire in the desert grasslands. In: McClaran MP, Van Devender TR (eds) The desert grassland. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp 130–151Google Scholar
  35. Mengel RM (1970) The North American central plains as an isolating agent in bird speciation. In: Dort W Jr, Jones JK Jr (eds) Pleistocene and recent environments of the central Great Plains. University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan, pp 279–340Google Scholar
  36. Miller B, Ceballos G, Reading R (1994) The prairie dog and biotic diversity. Conserv Biol 8:677–681CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Miller B, Reading R, Hoogland J, Clark T, Ceballos G, List R, Forrest S, Hanebury L, Manzano P, Pacheco J, Uresk D (2000) The role of prairie dogs as keystone species: response to Stapp. Conserv Biol 14:318–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Miller SD, Cully JF, Jr. (2001) Conservation of black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). J Mammal 82:889–893Google Scholar
  39. Ostlie WR, Schneider RE, Aldrich JM, Faust TM, McKim RLB, Chaplin SJ (1997) The status of biodiversity in the Great Plains. The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Va.Google Scholar
  40. Peterjohn BG, Sauer JR (1999) Population status of North American grassland birds from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, 1966–1996. Studies Avian Biol 19:27–44Google Scholar
  41. Ramankutty N, Foley JA (1999) Estimating historical changes in land cover: North American croplands from 1850 to 1992. Global Ecol Biogeog 8:381–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Reading RP, Beissinger SR, Grensten JJ, Clark TW (1989) Attributes of black-tailed prairie dog colonies in northcentral Montana, with management recommendations for the conservation of biodiversity. In: Clark TW, Hinckley D, Rich T (eds) The prairie dog ecosystem: managing for biological diversity. Montana BLM Wildlife Technical Bulletin No. 2, Bureau of Land Management, Billings, Mont., pp 13–27Google Scholar
  43. Resampling Stats (1997) Resampling Stats, version 4.1b4. Arlington, Va.Google Scholar
  44. Shackford JS, Tyler JD (1991) Vertebrates associated with black-tailed prairie dog colonies in Oklahoma. Report submitted to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma CityGoogle Scholar
  45. Sharps JC, Uresk DW (1990) Ecological review of black-tailed prairie dogs and associated species in western South Dakota. Great Basin Nat 50:339–345Google Scholar
  46. Sidle JG, Johnson DH, Euliss BR (2001) Estimated areal extent of colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs in the northern Great Plains. J Mammal 82:928–936Google Scholar
  47. Sieg CH, Flather CH, McCanny S (1999) Recent biodiversity patterns in the Great Plains: implications for restoration and management. Great Plains Res 9:277–313Google Scholar
  48. Sims PL, Risser PG (2000) Grasslands. In: Barbour MG, Billings WD (eds) North American terrestrial vegetation, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 324–356Google Scholar
  49. SPSS (2000) SYSTAT, version 10. SPSS Science, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  50. Thomas L, Laake JL, Derry JF, Buckland ST, Borchers DL, Anderson DR, Burnham KP, Strindberg S, Hedley SL, Burt ML, Marques FFC, Pollard JH, Fewster RM (1998) Distance 3.5. Research Unit for Wildlife Population Assessment, University of St. Andrews, UK (Available: http://www.ruwpa.st-and.ac.uk/distance/)Google Scholar
  51. Tilman D, Wedin D, Knops J (1996) Productivity and sustainability influenced by biodiversity in grassland ecosystems. Nature 379:718–720Google Scholar
  52. Tyler JD (1968) Distribution and vertebrate associates of the black-tailed prairie dog in Oklahoma. PhD Dissertation, University of Oklahoma, NormanGoogle Scholar
  53. Udvardy MDF (1958) Ecological and distributional analysis of North American birds. Condor 60:50–66Google Scholar
  54. Vinton MA, Collins SL (1997) Landscape gradients and habitat structure in native grasslands of the central Great Plains. In: Knopf FL, Samson FB (eds) Ecology and conservation of Great Plains vertebrates. Springer, New York Berlin Heidelberg, pp 3–19Google Scholar
  55. Wallace LL, Turner MG, Romme WH, O’Neill RV, Wu Y (1995) Scale of heterogeneity of forage production and winter foraging by elk and bison. Landscape Ecol 10:75–83Google Scholar
  56. Weltzin JF, Dowhower SL, Heitschmidt RK (1997) Prairie dog effects on plant community structure in southern mixed-grass prairie. Southwest Nat 42:251–258Google Scholar
  57. Whicker AD, Detling JK (1988) Ecological consequences of prairie dog disturbances. Bioscience 38:778–785Google Scholar
  58. Winter SL, Cully JF, Jr., Pontius JS (1999a) Influence of prairie dog colonies and climatic variation on bird communities in Kansas shortgrass prairie. In: Thorpe J, Steeves TA, Gollop M (eds) Proceedings of the fifth prairie conservation and endangered species conference. Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, p 374Google Scholar
  59. Winter SL, Cully JF, Jr., Pontius JS (1999b) Influence of prairie dogs on vegetation in Kansas shortgrass prairie. In: Thorpe J., Steeves TA, Gollop M (eds) Proceedings of the fifth prairie conservation and endangered species conference. Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, pp 375–379Google Scholar
  60. Wuerthner G (1997) Viewpoint: the black-tailed prairie dog—headed for extinction? J Range Manage 50:459–466Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Zoology and Oklahoma Biological SurveyUniversity of OklahomaNormanUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental and Forest BiologyState University of New York College of Environmental Science and ForestrySyracuseUSA
  3. 3.Department of Biological SciencesEmporia State UniversityEmporiaUSA

Personalised recommendations