Birds of the Oak Openings
Birds of the Oak Openings Communities – The Oak Openings provides a variety of habitat to many groups of bird species. Some of these species have very specific habitat requirements, and others occur many miles outside their normal geographic range. Because of this, many enthusiastic birds venture far outside their normal geographic range to see these birds! Conservation within the Oak Openings often has a broad focus, with the intent of restoring whole communities, including habitat for birds that once did or still do inhabit these communities. Where healthy communities are restored, native birds often return, as demonstrated by the return of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), Lark Sparrows (Chondestes grammacus), and many other grassland and savanna birds to restored prairie habitat.
Lakeplain wet prairie:
The Lakeplain wet prairie is attractive to uncommon breeding birds as well as a variety of migrants. Wet prairies once extended for miles across portions of the Oak Openings. These large expanses occurred in patchy mosaics between <100 acres to over 15,000 acres. Due to their large size and seasonal flooding that prevented the establishment of woody plants, wet prairies once housed many bird species with large territory requirements and sensitive to wetland conditions. For example, the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) averages a territory size of 640 acres. With <1% of wet prairie habitat remaining in small, scattered fragments, the region no longer supports this species. Other species, such as the Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) and King Rail (Rallus elegans), are wetland specialists, but avoid areas with woody vegetation nearby. Given the altered hydrologic and fire regimes that have led to vegetation succession throughout the region, these species, too, no longer persist. The American Bittern(Botaurus lentiginosus), Sora (Porzana carolina), Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), Common Moorhen(Gallinula galeata), Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata), and Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis) are other species that are no longer found in Oak Openings wet prairies. Today, the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii), Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), and Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) can still be found in some remaining wet prairies, such as the Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve in Holland, OH.
This community has been severely fragmented and degraded due to intensive conversion to agricultural fields, pastures, parks, cemeteries, and timber exploitation. However, relatively recent recognition of the importance of the oak savanna community, and increased efforts to restore and protect it, improve the likelihood that the declining trends of oak savanna birds will be reversed. The Red-headed Woodpecker is a good indicator of a healthy oak savanna. During the breeding season, these birds nest in snags, particularly oak or hickory, and consume primarily insects, seeds, and nuts. In winter, the woodpecker primarily eats hard mast (acorns, beechnuts), and therefore requires healthy mast-producing trees. The Oak Openings provides both breeding and wintering habitat for the Red-headed Woodpecker. The Eastern Wood-pewee, Baltimore Oriole, Eastern Bluebird, and Summer Tanger may also be found in oak savannas. Notably, the presence of the Summer Tanager in the Oak Openings is an exception to their typical range, which only extends as far north as southern Ohio.
Midwest sand barren:
Once maintained by natural fire and drought, these open landscapes are now artificially maintained through management such as prescribed fire and cutting of woody vegetation. The Lark Sparrow is common in clump grass prairies and shrubbe-steppe habitats west of Mississippi, but also occurs in dry sand prairies and barrens of the Oak Openings, making it a specialty in the region. In the Oak Openings, this species needs prairie patches at least 4.7 acres in size with 50% or more bare sand. Management is critical to maintaining this species in the region: recent studies in the Oak Openings show that Lark Sparrows were more likely to occupy sites that were managed annually or almost annually.
Mesic sand tall grass prairie:
Mesic sand prairies are typically dominated by little bluestem, big bluestem, Indian grass, and prairie dropseed, and average less than 1 tree/acre. Unplowed remnants are small and rare, often occurring along railways. Yet, some bird species that were once found in these mesic sand prairies can now be found in grassy meadows and fallow fields, including mowed airstrips at airports. The Savannah Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Eastern Kingbird, and Henslow’s Sparrow may still be found in these habitats. However, due to alterations such as habitat fragmentation and vegetational succession, the Sedge Wren, Upland Sandpiper, and Bobolink are no longer Oak Openings residents. The Upland Sandpiper is commonly considered an indicator species for quality prairie habitat. This species nests in colonies and requires large prairies with high grass and litter cover, and little bare ground or forbs cover. Nesting Upland Sandpipers, Bobolinks, or Sedge Wrens may be return if more suitable habitat is restored.
Lakeplain flatwoods and floodplain forests:
These closed-canopy forests provide essential habitat for many threatened and declining tropical migrant songbirds. In northwest Ohio, extensive forest stands are virtually restricted to the Oak Openings. Some birds of prey that use these communities include the Cooper’s, Broad-winged, Red-shouldered Hawks and Barred Owl. The Red-tailed hawk may nest in small patches of forest, but spends much of its time hunting in adjacent grasslands and old fields. The Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos; Pileated, Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers; Acadian and Great Crested Flycatchers; Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos; Veery; Wood Thrush; Ovenbird; Black-capped Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; White-breasted Nuthatch; House and Carolina Wrens; Cerulean, Kentucky, and Hooded Warblers; Rose-breasted Grosebeak; and Scarlet Tanager can also be found in Oak Openings closed-canopy forests.
Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows utilize this habitat and in some years, Dickcissels will set up colonies. Dickcissel is a western species that is close to the eastern edge of its range here. In addition, Eastern Meadowlarks and Eastern Bluebirds can be found commonly in this habitat.
Non-native landcover- Conifer stands:
Conifers are not native to the Oak Openings, but were planted in abandoned farm fields during the 1930’s. While some of these areas are still maintained, they do not offer quality habitat for native flora or fauna. Some conservation agencies in the region are making efforts to restore a few of these conifer plantings to their native communities. Within the conifers, one may find Blue-headed Vireo, Pine Warblers, and Red-breasted Nuthatches. Occasionally the Sharp-shinned Hawks or Golden-crowned kinglets, rare summer residents, may nest here. Dense conifers may also be used for daytime roosting by owls.
Threats and solutions:
Much of the damage to Oak Openings communities that support these birds has already been done: wetlands have been ditched and drained, natural fires have been suppressed, and aggressive non-native plants have been introduced. However, other threats continue to this day. Fragmentation of habitats occurs with new development, and more non-native species continue to find their way to this area, often hitchhiking on transported goods or even intentionally planted in homeowners’ gardens.
Historically, shrublands were not a major component of the Oak Openings. Today, however, overgrown meadows, unmanaged prairies, and old lots provide shrubby habitat to many bird species. These shrublands are usually dominated by non-native plants such as honeysuckle, buckthorn, multi-flora rose, and autumn olive. Often, habitat management in the Oak Openings involves removing large stands of these non-native shrubs, which threaten populations of native plants. In their place, native, fire-tolerant shrubs such as American hazelnut or New Jersey tea may grow. The Song Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Blue-winged Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfish, Chipping Sparrow, Gray Catbird, and Yellow-breasted Chat are some bird species that may be found in these successional habitats.
Homeowners can improve bird habitat by reducing the size of grassy lawns, which provide little cover or food. Instead, leave large portions of the landscape in its natural vegetation, or plant species that are native to the area. A garden of native wildflowers and grasses will benefits birds, butterflies, and other Oak Openings wildlife. Consider planting salvias, larkspurs, zinnias, and impatiens to attract hummingbirds, or native fruiting shrubs for robins, waxwings, mockingbirds, and catbirds. Native plants adapted to sandy soils of the Oak Openings can also greatly reduce yard work because they require little to no mowing, water, or fertilizer. Bluebird boxes can be placed in grassy openings of about an acre, and bird feeders can bring birds closer to your home for your enjoyment.