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


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.

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R. Channell, T.A. Franklin, E. Johnson, M. Le, J. Moodie, R. Ramirez, and D. Vu helped with field surveys. I. Butler, R. Channell, T.A. Franklin, D. Hough, E. Johnson, D. Perault, and D. Vu provided assistance with various aspects of data entry and analysis. M. Kaspari, W. Matthews, D. Perault, D. Simberloff, and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on previous drafts of this manuscript. We thank D. Musick of the U.S. Forest Service and L. Green, M. Crocker, N. Erdman, and D. Watson of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation for providing access to federal and state lands and for assistance finding possible sites to survey. We sincerely appreciate the many private landowners that allowed us to conduct surveys on their property. We are grateful to the University of Oklahoma, Department of Zoology, and the Oklahoma Biological Survey for access to resources and vehicles. This research was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant (DEB-9622137), two Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) supplements from NSF (DEB-9820439, and DEB-9942014), and two faculty enrichment grants from the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Oklahoma to M.V. Lomolino, and a George Miksch Sutton Scholarship in Ornithology and grants from the Department of Zoology and Graduate Student Senate of the University of Oklahoma to G.A. Smith. This work was submitted by GAS in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a doctoral degree in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma.

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Smith, G.A., Lomolino, M.V. Black-tailed prairie dogs and the structure of avian communities on the shortgrass plains. Oecologia 138, 592–602 (2004).

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  • Biological diversity
  • Conservation
  • Fragmentation
  • Grassland birds
  • Keystone species