Sagebrush Songbirds Under the Sage Grouse Umbrella

Abundance of each of the three studied songbirds doubles where sagebrush covers more than 40% of the landscape.

The natural world is wonderfully messy. Add in a healthy dose of human intervention, and nature’s intricacies are revealed through complex answers to outwardly simple questions. Such is the case for sage grouse when labeled an umbrella species for the 170 other species of birds and mammals inhabiting the sagebrush sea. As a flagship species and ambassador for the sagebrush ecosystem, the sage grouse has stimulated unprecedented collaboration and resource investment for continued conservation of sagebrush communities in working landscapes.

Researchers examined whether benefits from sage grouse conservation extend to three species of sagebrush songbirds: Brewer’s sparrow, sagebrush sparrow and sage thrasher. New maps reveal that strongholds for sagebrush songbirds and sage grouse coincide: songbirds are 13-19% more abundant near large leks, or mating grounds, which support half of all known sage grouse populations. Policies and actions that benefit grouse also overlap high abundance areas for sagebrush songbirds, suggesting that benefits can extend to these less well-known species.

Patrick Donnelly, a landscape ecologist at Intermountain West Joint Venture and one of the researchers on this study, said conservation efforts are focused on areas with lots of sage grouse and his research shows the effects of that on the other birds.

"We found the correlation with songbirds was even greater,” he points out. “So where we have more grouse, we have even more songbirds. And our conservation strategies are focusing on those very specific places. It's a win-win for both species."

Findings in Wyoming revealed that sage grouse core areas overlap with 40-50% of areas with high or moderate songbird abundance, and in particular with high abundance areas of sage thrasher.

First, the researchers created abundance maps for each of the sagebrush songbirds using long-term bird count data coupled with measures of climate and habitat conditions. They found that the abundance of each songbird doubled when sagebrush covered 40 percent or more of the landscape. Unfortunately, they also discovered that fewer than 25 percent of sampled sites exceeded the 40 percent threshold of sagebrush-rich habitat.

Second, the scientists compared patterns of songbird abundance with the distribution of sage grouse leks. Near large leks, which support 50 percent of known grouse populations, abundance was 15 percent higher for Brewer’s sparrow, 13 percent for sagebrush sparrow, and 19 percent for sage thrasher.

Third, they examined how sagebrush songbirds may benefit from sage grouse conservation actions taking place in 11 western states. Donnelly and the other researchers found that targeted conservation efforts for sage grouse also provide significant conservation benefits for these songbird species.

Read a summary of these findings in this "Science to Solutions" study summary called Sagebrush Songbirds Under the Sage Grouse Umbrella.

Find the published journal article on this study here: Extending Conifer Removal and Landscape Protection Strategies from Sage-grouse to Songbirds, a Range-Wide Assessment