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Habitat Usage by Prairie Grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands

Llewellyn L. Manske PhD
Associate Range Scientist
North Dakota State University
Dickinson Research Extension Center

Habitat management for Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) and Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) requires knowledge of the relative habitat usage by the grouse during different seasonal periods (spring, summer, fall, and winter) and major activities (spring courtship, nesting, brooding, and day and night roosting).

Prairie grouse habitat use index technique as developed by Robel et al. (1970) (% of bird locations / % of study area) was used to indicate relative habitat use by prairie grouse. A habitat use index value greater than 1.0 indicated that prairie grouse selection for that habitat was greater than expected if the grouse exhibited no preference. A value less than 1.0 indicated habitat use at a level less than expected. A value of zero indicated avoidance of that habitat type (Manske and Barker 1981). Field observations of prairie grouse habitat use were made along transects sampled between March 1975 through February 1981 across all habitat types, during all four seasons, and for all time periods except from 11:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. (Manske and Barker 1988). The percentages of the habitat types on the Sheyenne National Grasslands were determined by electronic planimeter and dot grid techniques (Manske 1980, Manske and Barker 1981, Manske and Barker 1988) and have been described quantitatively by topographic, edaphic, and vegetative characteristics.

Prairie grouse habitat use for the four seasonal periods was primarily in the Hummocky Sandhills and the Deltaic Plain Habitat Associations (Table 1). No prairie grouse habitat use was observed in the River Terrace Habitat Association. Prairie chicken did not use the Choppy Sandhills Habitat Association but sharp-tailed grouse did have some use in that Habitat Association during all four seasons. Generally, there was very little difference between the relative seasonal habitat use indices of prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse.

Most of the prairie grouse activity was in the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association during spring and summer. Activity shifted to the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association during fall and winter. Sharp-tailed grouse shifted their activities from the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association to the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association later in the fall than prairie chicken and they shifted their activities back to the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association earlier in the spring than prairie chicken.

Prairie grouse used a wide diversity of habitat types in each seasonal period and their relative habitat usage varied with the activity and seasonal period (Table 1). Habitat usage during spring was primarily the Upland and Midland Habitat Types of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association. Birds active in spring courtship rituals used areas of short native vegetation primarily on Upland and Midland Habitat Types with areas of taller vegetation adjacent or near. Birds not actively displaying during courtship used areas with taller vegetation, primarily the Midland Habitat Type. Prairie chicken continued to feed on agricultural residue in the Cropland Habitat Types of the Deltaic Plain and Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Associations during early spring. Sharp-tailed grouse fed in the Cropland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association but did not use the Cropland Habitat Type of the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association during spring.

Summer habitat use was principally in the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association with all available habitat types selected. Prairie grouse disbanded into small groups or singles after spring courtship. Several male grouse continued to stay near display ground areas for a large portion of the summer. Hens were very mobile and used a wide variety of habitat types. Shrubs on the Midland and Lowland Habitat Types were used for cover and shade during the hot portions of summer. Areas with alfalfa (Medicago sativa) cropland were used for feed and cover.

Fall was a period with several changes. Hens left their broods which broke up and dispersed. Small flocks of adult and juvenile birds would gather on or near fall display grounds. These small flocks were very mobile and would travel several miles during a day. Habitat use shifted from primarily grassland vegetation to cropland. This shift in habitat usage was earlier for prairie chicken than sharp-tailed grouse.

Winter was a stressful period for prairie grouse. During severe weather, small flocks joined together and formed packs (flocks larger than 60 birds). Activities of these large flocks centered around cropland and adjacent shelterbelts, primarily in the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association. A very small amount of winter activity was conducted on grassland habitats of the Deltaic Plain and Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Associations. Spilled grain along transportation routes and in cropland and crop residue from harvested cropland were the primary sources for high energy winter food. Spilled wheat along the railroad right of way was used by most large flocks for food during late fall and winter. Trees in shelterbelts were used for cover and their buds, fruit and samaras used for food. Standing corn (Zea mays) and sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) were used for food when snow covered the spilled grain and other crop residue.

Prairie grouse spring courtship display grounds were primarily located on Upland and Midland Habitat Types on the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association (Table 2). A few prairie chicken display grounds were located on the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association. No sharp-tailed grouse display grounds were on the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association. No prairie chicken or sharp-tailed grouse display grounds were located on the Choppy Sandhills or River Terrace Habitat Associations.

Vegetation for prairie grouse courtship display needed to be short. The plants that were present on the Upland Habitat Type were of short stature and acceptable to prairie grouse for courtship display activity with or without mowing and grazing management. Vegetation on the Midland and Lowland Habitat Types was generally too tall and unacceptable for courtship display activity unless it had been mowed the previous year or grazed short which occurred near some livestock watering facilities.

Concealment cover adjacent or near spring display grounds was considered to be important and 181 prairie chicken and 87 sharp-tailed grouse display grounds were evaluated for availability of concealment cover. Good concealment cover was considered to be vegetation with mean 100% VOM (visual obstruction measurement) of greater than 1.5 decimeters (5.9 inches). Most of the display grounds, 87.9% of the prairie chicken and 93.1% of the sharp-tailed grouse, had some concealment cover adjacent or near. Spring courtship display ground habitat appears to be a combination of short vegetation for display purposes and adjacent or very near areas with good cover for concealment.

Nineteen prairie grouse nest sites were located during this study. Nine prairie chicken and eight sharp-tailed grouse nests were found in native grassland vegetation. All seventeen of these nests were in the Midland Grassland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association (Table 2). Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) was the dominant species at all of the nest sites in native vegetation except for one sharp-tailed grouse nest where spiraea (Spiraea alba) and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis) were dominant species and switchgrass was subdominant. Two prairie chicken nests were found in alfalfa (Medicago sativa) of the Cropland Habitat Type. No sharp-tailed grouse nests were found in cropland. No prairie grouse nest sites were located in the Choppy Sandhills or River Terrace Habitat Association. The 1.5 decimeter level at the 100% visual obstruction measurement (VOM) was considered to be the minimum level for good nest habitat for both prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse. Prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse nest habitat was the switchgrass portion of the Midland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association with mean 100% VOM of 1.5 decimeters or greater. Prairie chicken also nested in alfalfa cropland.

Fifty-four prairie chicken and twenty-eight sharp-tailed grouse broods were located. Prairie grouse broods were very mobile and traveled over a considerable amount of area. Prairie chicken used all the available grassland habitat types and alfalfa cropland of the Hummocky Sandhills and Deltaic Plain Habitat Associations (Table 2). Sharp-tailed grouse broods used the grassland habitat types of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association and the Lowland Habitat Type of the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association. Sharp-tailed grouse broods also used the Upland Woodland Habitat Type of the Choppy Sandhills Habitat Association. These sharp-tailed grouse broods used the areas of shrubs and young trees on the edge of groves. No broods were located within the groves of mature trees. Prairie chicken broods did not use the Habitat Types in the Choppy Sandhills Habitat Association. Prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse broods did not use the Habitat Types of the River Terrace Habitat Association. Areas of short vegetation that had been mowed and grazed with adjacent areas of dense residual and growing vegetation were used considerably as feeding areas. The dense cover was used mainly for escape cover and loafing but very little for feeding. Broods usually used areas that had relatively high amounts of forbs and shrubs. These areas usually provided good canopy cover and relatively open understory. The percentage of broods observed in woody vegetation consisting of short shrubs was 47.3% of the prairie chicken and 51.7% of the sharp-tailed grouse broods. Most of the broods observed in the Upland Habitat Type, 93.7% of the prairie chicken and 81.8% of the sharp-tailed grouse broods, were in woody vegetation. The mean 100% VOM for Upland, Midland, and Lowland Habitat Types used for brood cover was 1.6, 2.2, and 1.9 decimeters, respectively. Prairie grouse brood habitat was a wide diversity of plant communities and height-densities. Generally broods were associated with vegetation with relatively larger amounts of forbs and short shrubs that provided good canopy cover and relatively open understories.

Prairie grouse spent a considerable amount of time on ground roosts. They were on night roost from dusk to dawn and on day roosts for a large portion of the day between morning and evening feeding periods. Roosting activity occupied the greatest amount of time in the life of a prairie grouse.

Prairie grouse night roost sites with the birds present were primarily in the Midland and Lowland Habitat Types of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association during spring, summer and fall (Table 3). The switchgrass portion of the midland grassland community was more important for night roosting than the upper portion. Night roost habitat shifted to Cropland and adjacent shelterbelts during winter. Some night roosting activity was continued in the midland grassland community with switchgrass in the winter. Tree shelterbelts were very important for night roosting in winter. This shelterbelt habitat included the rows of planted trees on the edge of cropland and also small areas of volunteer willow (Salix spp.), cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and/or aspen (Populus tremuloides) that were located in or near cropland. Trees provided some protection from the winter weather and deeper snow drifts developed in or near trees. Prairie grouse often burrowed into these snow drifts to roost at night. Most snow burrows were found in snow that was 12 inches or greater in depth. Snow drifts also tended to accumulate on the back and foot slopes on the lee side of hummocks in the grassland habitats. Prairie grouse also used these snow drifts to make burrows for night roosting.

The mean 100% visual obstruction measurements (VOM) for night roost sites was 1.9 0.4 decimeters with a range from 1.5 to 2.2 decimeters. It was considered that 1.5 decimeters was the minimum level for good night roost habitat. This was the same as the minimum level determined for prairie grouse nesting habitat.

Prairie grouse day roost sites with the birds present were primarily in the Midland Grassland with switchgrass Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association during spring and fall and primarily in the Upland and Lowland Habitat Types during summer (Table 3). In summer, day roosts were associated with shrubs. Summer day roosts were mainly in lead plant (Amorpha canescens) in the upland and willow (Salix spp.) in the lowlands. Shrubs provided shade from the hot sun and good canopy cover in the summer. No day roost sites were found in the winter.

The mean 100% visual obstruction measurements (VOM) for day roost sites was 1.5 0.4 decimeters with a range from 1.1 to 1.9 decimeters. The 100% VOM values were lower for day roosts than night roosts. Day roost site characteristically had one of the four sides with very low vegetation. The bird's head was at the side with low vegetation and the pile of feces developed at the opposite side. Mean 100% VOM for the three high sides for day roost sites was 1.9 decimeters.

Night roosting habitat was primarily the switchgrass portion of the Midland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association with mean 100% VOM of 1.5 decimeters or greater. During winter, night roosts were primarily in snow burrows. These snow burrows were located in areas where snow accumulated to 12 inches or greater in depth. Day roosting habitat was primarily the switchgrass portion of the Midland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association with mean 100% VOM of 1.1 decimeters or greater. Shrubs on the Upland and Lowland Habitat Types of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association were used during the summer.

Summary

The Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association was the primary spring and summer prairie grouse habitat and the Deltaic Plain Habitat Association was the primary winter habitat. All of the grassland and cropland habitat types of the Hummocky Sandhills and Deltaic Plain Habitat Associations were used by prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse during some seasonal period of the year and should be considered as valuable prairie grouse habitat. The switchgrass portion of the Midland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association was by far the primary grassland habitat used by prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. It was used for concealment cover during spring courtship. It was the only native grassland habitat selected for nesting. It was one of the major brood habitats. It was the primary night roosting habitat and an important day roosting habitat. The Cropland and associated tree shelterbelt Habitat Type was the primary prairie grouse habitat used in winter. The Cropland Habitat Type was used by prairie grouse for the source of high energy food from spilled grain, crop residue and unharvested standing row crops that they needed during the winter. Management for prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse habitat should consider all available Habitat Types of the Hummocky Sandhills and Deltaic Plain Habitat Associations as important. Two habitat types were more important to the prairie grouse than the other habitat types. These two habitat types were the switchgrass portion of the Midland Habitat Type of the Hummocky Sandhills Habitat Association and the Cropland and associated tree shelterbelts Habitat Type.

Literature Cited

Manske, L.L. 1980. Habitat, phenology and growth of selected sandhills range plants. Ph.D. Thesis, NDSU, Fargo, N.D. 154 p.

Manske, L.L. and W.T. Barker. 1981. Prairie chicken habitat use on the Sheyenne National Grasslands, North Dakota. Proc. North Dakota Academy of Science, 35:2.

Manske, L.L. and W.T. Barker. 1981. The prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands, North Dakota. NDSU Research Report, Fargo, N.D. 238 p.

Manske, L.L. and W.T. Barker. 1988. Habitat usage by prairie grouse on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. USDA Forest Service. General Technical Report RM-159. p. 8-20.

Robel, R.J., J.N. Briggs, J.J. Cebula, N.J. Silvy, C.E. Viers, and P.G. Watt. 1970. Greater prairie chicken range, movements, and habitat usage in Kansas. Jour. of Wildlife Mgt. 34(2):286-306.

 

REPORT TABLES

Table 1. Habitat use index for prairie grouse during four seasonal periods of the habitat association and habitat types on the Sheyenne National Grasslands (SNG). 


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Table 2. Habitat use index for prairie grouse courtship display ground, nest, and brood habitat on the Sheyenne National Grasslands.


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Table 3. Habitat use index for prairie grouse night and day roost sites with birds present on the Sheyenne National Grasslands.


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