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Chicagoland Nurtures Henslow’s Sparrow Rebound New Audubon Study Reveals

Land Management Partnership Brings Imperiled Prairie Bird Back From the Brink

NEW YORK – New findings in a study released by the National Audubon Society indicate that grasslands of the greater Chicago region are contributing significantly to the recovery of threatened bird populations while annually providing millions of dollars in flood control and carbon sequestration. A paper published yesterday in Avian Conservation & Ecology reveals threatened grassland bird species populations are still found across the metropolitan region. Audubon’s collaborations with private and public land managers promises to further support these important regional populations.

“Illinois is the ‘prairie state,’ yet it has lost over 99.9 % of its grassland prairies which once dominated the landscape. The Henslow’s Sparrow is one of many declining grassland bird species, symbolic of the prairie,” said Nathaniel Miller, study coauthor and Director of Conservation for Audubon Great Lakes.  “There is an incredible array of people working together to save these threatened habitats and birds. When you combine that grassroots effort with land acquisition and informed management from county forest preserves and state and federal agencies, there is a recipe for conservation success.”

Relying on large grassland prairies to successfully reproduce, Henslow’s Sparrow, a small migratory songbird, faced an uncertain future as grasslands gave way to agricultural intensification across the Midwest throughout the late 20th century. With an annual average rate of population decline close to 8% for nearly 30 years, the species appeared on a path towards extinction.

“The rapid decline of Henslow’s Sparrow was halted in the mid-90s largely thanks to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which compensates farmers who restore grasslands on their lands,” says Dr. James Herkert, Executive Director of Illinois Audubon Society. “However, the continued conversion of grasslands and invasion of nonnative brush continues to be a threat to the Henslow’s breeding habitat.”

With the aid of Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of 260 public and private organizations, which lists Henslow’s Sparrow as one of twelve high priority species, Herkert and Miller facilitated a large collaborative effort of land managers and grassland experts to use citizen science to inform a regional turnaround for threatened grassland bird species across the Midwest. Led by Dr. Chad Wilsey, Director of Conservation Science at National Audubon Society, eight years of avian point count surveys across 2,012 grassland patches identified across the seven-county Chicago Metropolitan Region were combined with landcover composition and configuration, soils, and vegetation productivity data to model relative abundance of five grassland bird species. The models lead to the creation of online maps delineating existing grassland bird habitat with relative population estimates for species of conservation concern across the region.

“This information can inform land management, restoration, and acquisitions to create large grassland complexes supporting healthy bird populations,” says Wilsey. “This is the most comprehensive survey data of grassland bird populations in Chicago to date.”

“People tend to think of Chicagoland as all urban, but it actually has much more grasslands than the surrounding agricultural deserts,” said Miller. “In addition, these grassland areas are important for birds as well as people, providing millions of dollars annually in flood protection, water filtration, groundwater recharge, and carbon storage. Quantifying the value of these ecosystem services alongside grassland bird habitat helps inform smart land use decisions and commitments on a broader level.”

Results of this conservation collaboration are clear. Sites like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Bartel Grasslands, Glacial Park, Kankakee Sands, Rollins Savanna, Poplar Creek Prairie, Spring Creek, Orland Grasslands are teeming with grassland birds. According to Illinois-wide spring bird counts, Henslow’s Sparrow populations are continuing to increase in the Chicago region whereas elsewhere in the state they have leveled off. Working with major land owners, Audubon and its partners are developing county-level grassland plans that are realistic and cost benefit based. Combined, these objectives together with the continued dedication of volunteers will inform further conservation needs for the Henslow’s Sparrow and its prairie neighbors. To learn more about what Audubon and Chicago Wilderness are doing to protect grassland bird species and how you can help, visit

The National Audubon Society saves birds and their habitats throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more at www.audubon.organd @audubonsociety.


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