Woody encroachment in grassland ecosystems of the Great Plains of North America, driven primarily by eastern redcedar (ERC; Juniperus virginiana), is resulting in reduction of suitable habitat for many grassland-dependant species, particularly grassland birds. Though ERC is native to the Great Plains region, widespread planting and fire suppression have allowed the species to spread into areas where it was not found historically. ERC is now widespread in the Great Plains, and is negatively impacting grassland-dependent ecosystem services, including forage production for the cattle industry. In the Loess Canyons region of Nebraska, landowners are working to restore rangeland for cattle production by using high intensity prescribed burns. This approximately 180,000 acre landscape is one of the largest restoration efforts in the Great Plains. We compared the avian communities between three zones within the Loess Canyons region: an ERC-dominated zone with little management intervention, the restoration zone managed intensively with prescribed burning, and a grassland-dominated zone, managed for cedar prevention. We used data from breeding season point count surveys conducted between 2009 and 2016 and non-metric multidimensional scaling to compare avian communities between the three zones.
While there was overlap in similarity of avian communities between all three zones, sites tended to group based on zone, with many sites within the restoration zone approaching similarity to sites in the grassland-dominated zone. Both the ERC-dominated zone and the grassland-dominated zone contained species that weren't found in the other two zones. Our results indicate that restoration efforts utilizing high intensity prescribed burning may be shifting avian communities towards a pre-ERC invasion state, potentially at broader scales than can be achieved with other restoration methods such as mechanical tree removal. Results from this study will help inform conservation efforts throughout Nebraska and the broader Great Plains region.