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 output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context: 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. Objectives: 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. Methods: 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. Results: 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. Conclusions: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1799-1813
Number of pages15
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2018


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

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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