Iowa birds find refuge in prairie conservation strips

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

PRAIRIE CITY, Iowa -- With small strips of native prairies, Iowa farmers can provide vital habitat for grassland birds that have diminished in numbers across the United States, according to research funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Anna MacDonald, graduate student in wildlife ecology at Iowa State University, studies how birds use narrow strips of native prairie incorporated into row-cropped fields as part of the STRIPs project at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Her work is featured in a new Leopold Center video.

The STRIPs project (Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairies), led by Matt Helmers in ISU’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, began in 2007 with a competitive grant from the Leopold Center. Researchers planted 14 small watersheds with a variety of treatments, ranging from conventional agriculture, to mixed systems with prairie conservation strips that cover 10 or 20 percent of the watershed, to reconstructed prairies. Members of the research team study how prairie strips reduce soil erosion, decrease nitrate and phosphorus movement and provide other vital ecosystem services.

MacDonald explained that planting a prairie mix, rather than a single species of grass like brome, adds an important benefit: habitat for birds. Birds need diverse native grasslands to forage for insects and raise nestlings. They interweave their nests into the stems of grasses and wildflowers. “Grassland bird species have gone through a major decline in the United States,” MacDonald said. “A lot of it is due to habitat loss.”

Creating large blocks of habitat isn’t always possible in Iowa’s intensively farmed landscape. But even small amounts of prairie can improve biodiversity. MacDonald observes how birds respond to prairie strips integrated with row crops. She walks through the watershed and marks the location of any bird she sees or hears, a technique called spot mapping. In the past five years, MacDonald and her colleagues have recorded 52 species in the STRIPs research sites, with an average of 31 species observed each year.

MacDonald also has identified 11 species nesting in the prairie strips, including Field Sparrows and Dickcissels. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has listed Field sparrows and Dickcissels as Species of Greatest Conservation Need, meaning that they have small or declining populations.  

Creating bird habitat can offer benefits to farmers and landowners. A 2006 survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 48 percent of Iowa residents (age 16 or older) participate in wildlife watching, and residents and visitors combined spent $318 million in Iowa for wildlife-watching activities.

 “I’m interested in the future of Iowa for people, but I’m also interested in the future of Iowa for wildlife,” MacDonald said. “For a long time there’s been this dichotomy that some lands are for farming and production and other lands are for conservation…. I don’t see why that can’t be part of Iowa’s future, having production and conservation interwoven so you can get more from the land.”

Watch the video at:   

Learn more about STRIPs at


Anna MacDonald, Natural Resource Ecology and Management, (515)-294-2957,

Matt Helmers, ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, (515) 294-6717,

Jeri Neal, Leopold Center Ecology Initiative, (515) 295-5610,

Laura Miller, Leopold Center Communications, (515) 294-5272,