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Providing evidence to improve practice

Action: Use prescribed burning on grasslands Bird Conservation

Key messages

Read our guidance on Key messages before continuing

  • Four studies from the USA, of 21 studies captured, found that overall species richness did not vary between burned areas, or areas burned recently, and unburned sites. One study found that community composition was also similar whilst others found that species showed individual responses.
  • Nine studies from across the world found that at least some study species were found at higher densities or were more abundant in burned areas than in unburned areas or areas under different management. One study investigated multiple interventions at once. Fourteen studies found that at least one study species was less abundant or found at similar abundances on burned areas of grassland, compared to unburned areas or those under different management. However, four studies found that apparent responses varied depending on how soon after fires measurements were taken. Care should therefore be taken when interpreting the results of studies on prescribed burning.
  • One study from the USA found that Florida grasshopper sparrow had significantly higher reproductive success soon after plots were burned, whilst another American study founds that dickcissel reproductive success was higher in patch-burned areas than burned and grazed areas.


Supporting evidence from individual studies


A replicated and controlled study in meadows in North Dakota, USA (Martz 1967), in 1961 found that there were 38% fewer pairs of ducks in burned areas of meadow, compared to unburned areas. This study is discussed in more detail in ‘Mow natural grasslands’.



A controlled trial in upland grassland at Highmoor State Forest, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa (Mentis & Bigalke 1981), in 1973-1977 found that grey-winged Francolinus africanus and red-winged F. levaillantii francolins were found at higher densities in unburned, rather than burned areas immediately after fire, but that preferences were reversed in the year after burning. At the start of the experimental period (spring 1975), francolin densities were higher in an area sunject to large scale burns than an area under patch burning, but by autumn 1977 there were significantly higher densities in the patch-burned area.



A replicated before-and-after study on Matagorda Island, Texas, USA (Chavez-Ramirez & Prieto 1994), found that northern harrier Circus cyaneus hudsonius numbers decreased significantly on two winter-burned natural grassland plots (from 39 to 12 birds), whilst American kestrels Falco sparverius increased (from two to ten birds). Raptor use during the month before and after burning was assessed on two 140 ha plots (burned 4-5 January 1993), by one hour weekly counts (13 December 1992 to 14 February 1993). Surveys (2 December-7 February) across the whole island, found a non-significant increase in total raptor numbers, and of the two commonest species (northern harrier and American kestrel). Total raptor numbers using plots pre- and post-burn were similar but with slight (non-significant) decreases.



A randomised, controlled, replicated before-and-after study in 1980-1988 in mixed-grass prairie at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota, USA (Kruse & Bowen 1996), found that nest densities of gadwall Anas strepera (but not six other duck species) were lower in areas and years with summer burning (and for several years after) compared to control areas. Densities of gadwall and blue-winged teal A. discors were also lower in areas with a combination of burning and spring cattle grazing. Nest success was generally high (31-45%) and unaffected by treatment. The authors argue that grazing reduced brush cover that provided nesting habitat for ducks.



A replicated, controlled trial in March-May 1993-1994 on Matagorda Island, Texas, USA (Hull et al. 1997), found few differences in spring bird abundance in cordgrass Spartina-dune paspalum Paspalum monostachyum grassland subject to summer compared to winter burns. Six 122 ha plots were established each year: two unburned; two burned late August (1992-1993); and two in January (1993-1994). Wrens (Troglodytidae) were consistently most abundant in unburned plots (21-28 birds/40 ha in unburned areas vs. 2-3 for summer burn and 1 for winter burn); 18-22 months after burning wren abundance increased but was still less than within unburned plots. Sparrows (Emberizinae) were most abundant on burn plots both 6-10 months (unburned: 3-8 birds/40 ha vs. summer burn: 16-19; winter burn: 11-16) and 18-22 months post-burn.



A replicated, controlled study in 1992-1995 in native grass-sown Conservation Reserve Program fields in Riley County, Kansas, USA (Robel et al. 1998), found significantly lower bird nesting density in fields with spring (mid-April-May) burning in the year of the burn, compared to control fields (27 of 399 nests found were on burned fields vs. 372 on controls). Nest success was 22% on burned and 34% on unburned fields. Average bird abundance on burned fields (year of burn) was6 birds/km of transect vs. 9/km on unburned fields. Species richness was similar (12-21 burned vs. 10-19 unburned).



A replicated and controlled study in 1990-1994 in two intensively managed grassland sanctuaries in southeast Illinois, USA (Herkert et al. 1999), found that northern harriers tended to nest in fields not disturbed by grassland management (burning and mowing) within the last 12 months (a total of 22 nests in unmanaged fields vs. seven in burned and grazed fields). Short-eared owl Asio flammeus nest-site selection could only be assessed in 1990: all 13 nests were in fields subject to management within the last 12 months. One study site comprised 550 ha of grassland among 10 tracts, the second 308 ha among seven tracts. Each tract comprised 3-32 ‘sub-fields’ (0.5-15 ha) usually subject to one management type (all burned or all mowed).



A replicated, controlled before-and-after study in 1997-1999 in six semi-desert grassland plots at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona, USA (Gorden 2000), found that the population responses of five wintering sparrow species to a prescribed spring burn varied between species. Over the three years, vesper Pocecetes gramineus and savannah Passerculus sandwichensis sparrow populations increased in three burned plots, whilst Cassin's sparrow Aimophila cassinii populations decreased. Grasshopper sparrow A. savannarum increased up to two years post-burn. Baird's sparrow Ammodramus bairdii had consistently low abundance (<0.7/plot).



A replicated, controlled trial in May-June 1995-1996 in grasslands in Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, Illinois, USA (Walk & Warner 2000), found that burned, non-native ‘cool season’ grassland plots held lower average densities of five grasslands birds than native ‘warm season’ grasslands under any management (burning, grazing, mowing or no management) and non-native grassland under mowing, haying, grazing or no management. However, species showed individual responses to different managements. The species surveyed were eastern meadowlark Sturnella magna and dickcissel Spiza americana, Henslow’s sparrow Ammodramus henslowii, field sparrow Spizella pusilla and grasshopper sparrow.



A randomised, controlled study in 1995-1997 in six tracts of tallgrass prairie in Melvern Wildlife Management Area, Kansas, USA (Applegate et al. 2002), found that Henslow’s sparrow were significantly less abundant in burned areas than in unburned tracts (1 bird/ha vs. 4); dickcissel abundance was similar in burned and unburned tracts (12 birds/ha). In spring 1995 four tracts were burned, in 1996 one was burned and in 1997 two were burned. In total, 22 Henslow’s sparrows (overall relative abundance 0.2 birds/ha) and 200 dickcissel (1.1 birds/ha) were recorded. Abundance was not correlated to tract perimeter length, or different distances to each other.



In prairie grassland at Air Force Avon Park Range, USA, a replicated study in March-August 1997-1999 (Delany et al. 2002) found that Florida grasshopper sparrow Ammodramus savannarum floridanus reproductive success was significantly higher six months after burning (38% of 32 nests successful) than at 18 (14% of 35 nests successful) and 30 months (0% of 13 nests successful) after burning. Four prairie pastures (165-324 ha) were burned in December to mid-March on three year rotations. Sparrow territory density (up to 0.2 territories/ha) appeared unaffected by time elapsed since burning.



A replicated study in June 1998-1999 in grassland and shrubland on a subalpine hillside in the Pyrénées-Orientales, France (Pons et al. 2003) found that four bird species with an unfavourable conservation status in Europe (rock bunting Emberiza cia, woodlark Lullula arborea, stonechat Saxicola torquata and red-backed shrike Lanius collurio) were found at highest abundances on recently burned grassland with scattered shrubs. A wildfire burned about one half of the hillside in 1980. From 1990 onwards, grassland management comprised prescribed winter burns (on a one-to-seven year rotation) and summer cattle grazing.



A replicated, randomised and controlled study in DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa, USA, in 1998-1999 (van Dyke et al. 2004), found that the average species richness of tallgrass prairie blocks (3-10 ha) was similar for four burned sites (10), mowed sites (12) and controls (11). Community composition was also similar. Burning and mowing took place from 22 April-11 May 1999.



A replicated study in tallgrass prairie in Kansas, USA (Powell 2006), found that six of seven birds surveyed showed a significant response to burning: Henslow's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, dickcissel, eastern meadowlark (grassland species) and Bell's vireo Vireo bellii (a shrub-dependent species) were least abundant in the breeding season following a burn (with Bell's vireo being absent from sites burned annually); upland sandpipers Bartramia longicauda were most abundant in the season following a burn. Brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater did not show any significant response.



A controlled study in 1999-2001 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, USA (Zuckerberg & Vickery 2006), found that song sparrows Melospiza melodia were significantly less abundant on burned grasslands, compared to controls (0.1 birds/ha on burned grasslands vs. 0.6 on controls). There was no significant difference between burned and mown grasslands. Savannah sparrows were equally abundant (0.7-0.9 birds/ha) on all treatments.



A replicated study in the winters of 2002-2003 in coastal prairie at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, Texas, USA (Baldwin et al. 2007), found no significant difference in average number of bird species in five plots one year after burning, compared to plots two or three years after burning. Three rarer species (sandhill crane Grus canadensis, Sprague's pipit Anthus spragueii and grasshopper sparrow) were only observed in first-year burn plots. Of the four commonest species, Le Conte's sparrow A. leconteii was significantly more abundant in second-year than third-year burn plots, savannah sparrow more so in first- than second- or third-year burn plots, and sedge wren Cistothorus platensis more common in second- and third-year than first-year burn plots. No significant differences were found for swamp sparrow Melospiza georgiana.



A replicated, randomized, controlled study in May-July 1995-1997 in tallgrass prairie at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa, USA (van Dyke et al. 2007), found that overall, bird species richness and diversity did not vary between burned patches (3-9.3 ha) of prairie and unburned controls (9-12 species/plot in five burned plots vs. 7-10 species on five controls).



A study in Oklahoma, USA, in 2003-2004 (Churchwell et al. 2008), found that dickcissel reproductive success was lower in traditionally-managed pastures (annual burning followed by early-intensive grazing) compared to patch-burn management of tallgrass prairie. Dickcissels (296 nests monitored) tended to start nesting later, but nest densities were higher, in traditionally managed pasture. The average number of eggs per clutch and fledglings produced were similar between treatments. Predation was the main cause of nest failure and was higher in the traditionally managed pastures, as was parasitism by brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater.



A replicated study in 2002-2003 (Powell 2008) at the same tallgrass prairie site in Kansas, USA, as in (14), found that all seven bird species surveyed showed a significant response to burning: upland sandpipers were more abundant in the breeding season following a burn, whilst Henslow's sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, dickcissel, eastern meadowlark, brown-headed cowbird (all grassland species) and Bell's vireo (a shrub-dependent species) were less abundant or absent. Grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows, and meadowlark were more abundant in areas not burned the preceding spring, and less abundant at sites burned every four years. Bell’s vireo was commonest at sites burned every four years.



A replicated study in the winters of 2006-2007 in four wiregrass Aristida beyrichiana-dominated prairie sites in south-central Florida, USA (Butler et al. 2009), found that grasshopper sparrow were six times more likely to be found if transects were burned within the previous 12 months. Sedge wrens Cistothorus platensis were more abundant in grassland with longer intervals between fires.



A replicated study in prairie in May-June 1998-2003 at J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota, USA (Grant et al. 2010), found that prescribed burning in seven 41-69 ha blocks (each burned in one year of the study) initially reduced densities of some grassland passerines but that total numbers soon increased. Twenty-two grassland bird species were recorded. Species richness and number of pairs was lowest in the first post-burn breeding season, increasing in the second and stabilizing up to 4-years post-burn. Fire significantly affected five of eight species analysed: numbers of pairs of sedge wren, clay-colored sparrow Spizella pallida, Le Conte's sparrow Ammodramus leconteii, savannah sparrow and bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus were lowest in the year following burning but then generally increased and stabilized within three years.


Referenced papers

Please cite as:

Williams, D.R., Child, M.F., Dicks, L.V., Ockendon, N., Pople, R.G., Showler, D.A., Walsh, J.C., zu Ermgassen, E.K.H.J. & Sutherland, W.J. (2019) Bird Conservation. Pages 141-290 in: W.J. Sutherland, L.V. Dicks, N. Ockendon, S.O. Petrovan & R.K. Smith (eds) What Works in Conservation 2019. Open Book Publishers, Cambridge, UK.