Dry-mesic Prairie

habitat photo
Photo 1 | Photo 2
Dry-mesic Prairie within an active railroad right of way. La Crosse River Trail Prairies State Natural Area, La Crosse, Monroe counties. Photo by Eric Epstein.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

Sample and Mossman: Dry-mesic Prairie (Sample and Mossman 1997).
Vegetation of Wisconsin: Dry-mesic Prairie (Curtis 1971).
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Natural Communities: Dry-mesic Prairie (WDNR 2005).


Dry-mesic Prairie occurs on level to gently sloping sites on a range of landforms that include glacial outwash, gravelly moraines, river valley terraces, and the lower slopes of Driftless Area bluffs. The sandy loam or loamy sand soils of Dry-mesic Prairie results in a plant community that is less tall and dense than Wet-mesic and Wet Prairies. Dry-mesic Prairie is characterized by a dense to moderately-dense growth of low to medium-height herbaceous vegetation with less than 5% woody cover. Dominant grasses include big blue-stem, little blue-stem, yellow Indian grass, and needle grass. Other plants reaching their greatest abundance in dry-mesic prairie include thimbleweed, lead-plant, gray goldenrod, flowering spurge, sky-blue aster, and purple prairie-clover (Sample and Hoffman 1989, Henderson 1995, WDNR 2005, Kost et al. 2007).

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

Approximately 255,000 hectares of Dry-mesic Prairie occurred in Wisconsin prior to European settlement, generally on steeper slopes and poorer soils than Wet-mesic or Wet Prairie (Curtis 1959 cited in Sample and Hoffman 1989).Although sites supporting dry-mesic prairie were not well-suited for crop production, they suffered other forms of degradation. Heavy grazing, invasive species, woody encroachment, and urban development have fragmented and simplified the remaining 160 hectares of this grassland type (Sample and Hoffman 1989). Today, most dry-mesic prairie persists as small, isolated remnants in the following ecological landscapes: Southeast Glacial Plain, Southwest Savanna, and Western Coulees and Ridges (WDNR 2005). Empire Prairies State Natural Area in Columbia County and York Prairie State Natural Area in Green County both harbor good examples of dry-mesic prairies.

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Dry-mesic Prairie was a fire-adapted, disturbance-prone system prior to European settlement. Periodic fires reduced woody encroachment and helped sustain native prairie vegetation at some sites. Fires created openings for seedling establishment and replenished nutrients to the soil that were essential for plant growth, flowering, and seed set (Kost et al. 2007). Elk and white-tailed deer may have impacted vegetation at a local level, but it is unclear whether herbivory had significant landscape effects in Wisconsin (TNC 2001). Different disturbance regimes (i.e., disturbance type, scale, frequency, severity, and timing) across the landscape resulted in a complex range of successional stages and a diverse biological community. Also, small-scale disturbances created by burrowing mammals such as plains pocket gopher, thirteen-lined ground squirrel, and badger created microhabitats that supported unique plants and some additional animals. As native grassland ecosystems were converted to cropland and pasture, however, the landscape mosaic was simplified and the once continuous grassland landscape was fragmented by fields, woodlots, roads, and other human developments (Steinauer and Collins 1996). These ownership patterns also increased the isolation of the ever-decreasing remnants.

Increased development has severely fragmented native grassland habitats and suppressed, eliminated, or altered the ecological processes necessary to maintain prairie diversity. Approximately 56% of Wisconsin’s native prairie remnants occur on public properties that can be managed for prairie conservation. However, some management tools such as prescribed fire are constrained even on public lands because of public perception and surrounding land use. Without active management, aggressive non-native plants such as smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, orchard grass, wild parsnip, and spotted knapweed invade and simplify the biological community. Most dry-mesic prairie remnants are now too scarce, small, and isolated for locally extirpated plant species to recolonize from adjoining or nearby lands. Woody plants such as the native hawthorn and the non-native common buckthorn and multiflora rose also can be problematic. Excessive woody cover adversely impacts grassland bird communities by increasing negative edge effects and providing movement corridors for predators (Curtis 1971, Hoffman and Sample 1988, Sample and Mossman 1997, WDNR 2005).

Related WBCI Habitats: Dry Prairie, Oak Opening.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

Dry-mesic prairie patches and their avifauna are significantly influenced by surrounding land cover (Sample et al. 2003). Because most remaining patches are small and occur in areas highly fragmented and disturbed by agricultural and residential land uses, the surrounding landscape often determines whether grassland-associated birds dominate. Fragments embedded in landscapes with large amounts of grasslands and other open habitats are more likely to support grassland birds such as Bobolink, Henslow’s Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Savannah Sparrow and area-sensitive species such as Northern Harrier and Upland Sandpiper (McCoy 1996, Sample and Ribic 2001). Site-level characteristics also are important for some species. Scattered woody plants provide nesting and perching sites for Loggerhead Shrike, Brown Thrasher, and Field Sparrow. Short, sparse vegetation attracts breeding Grasshopper Sparrow and Vesper Sparrow whereas Dickcissel may only be present at sites with a significant forb component (Sample and Hoffman 1989, Sample and Mossman 1997, Cutright et al. 2006). Considering the diverse habitat requirements of grassland avifauna, it is important to maintain a mosaic of conditions (i.e., composition, structure, patch size, and disturbance regimes) across the landscape.  

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Mallard b If appropriate open water for breeding pairs and broods is available nearby.
Blue-winged Teal b If appropriate open water for breeding pairs and broods is available nearby.
Greater Prairie-Chicken b, w Formerly common nesting species but limited now to part of central Wisconsin.
Northern Bobwhite b, w Requires a shrub or tree component.
Northern Harrier b, m Formerly common nesting species but largely extirpated from this type except where prairie is embedded in a large, grassland-dominated area.
American Golden Plover m Occasionally occurs in burned areas.
Upland Sandpiper b, m Occurs in prairies embedded in high-grass landscapes with some drier ridges and hummocks.
Marbled Godwit m Occasionally occurs in burned areas.
Barn Owl f Very rare resident in southern and central Wisconsin.
Short-eared Owl b, m, w Formerly common nesting species but largely extirpated from this type.
Willow Flycatcher b, m Requires a shrub component.
Loggerhead Shrike b, m Requires a shrub component.
Bell’s Vireo b, m Requires a shrub component.
Brown Thrasher b, m Requires a shrub component.
Common Yellowthroat b, m Prefers tall, dense herbaceous cover and/or a shrub component.
Field Sparrow B, M Requires a shrub component.
Vesper Sparrow B, M Prefers areas with short, sparse vegetation and some bare ground, e.g., recently burned sites.
Grasshopper Sparrow B, M Prefers relatively short, patchy vegetation.
Dickcissel B, M Prefers sites with a thick-stemmed forb component.
Bobolink B, M  
Eastern Meadowlark B, M  
Western Meadowlark b, m  


Management Recommendations

Landscape-level Recommendations

  1. Support state and federal programs that manage, enhance, or restore grassland habitats on private lands. Develop cooperative agreements with private landowners to prevent habitat fragmentation and conversion in areas critical for grassland bird conservation.
  2. Develop a digital layer of high-grassland landscapes to focus restoration and conservation efforts. Discourage extensive tree planting within these landscapes to improve the long-term viability of obligate grassland birds.
  3. Partner with the agricultural community to ensure rural working landscapes with high amounts of open space suitable for birds and other wildlife.
  4. Determine what scale of landscape management is possible in an area: medium (400-2,000 hectares) or large (>4,000 hectares). Consider developing a grassland Bird Conservation Area in appropriate landscapes (see Fitzgerald and Pashley 2000).

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Focus management and protection priorities on dry-mesic prairie remnants that are large, diverse, support rare species, contain minimal woody cover, and are embedded in landscapes with large amounts of grassland and open habitats (McCoy 2000, DeJong 2001, Bakker et al. 2002).
  2. Develop a digital data layer of dry-mesic prairie remnants to better prioritize acquisitions and conservation easements and maximize benefits to grassland birds (Kost et al. 2007).
  3. Restorations aimed at area-sensitive species such as Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, and Henslow’s Sparrow should be at least 50 ha and preferably more than 100 ha in area if the sites are isolated. Sites embedded in high-grassland landscapes can be smaller than this and still provide valuable habitat to these species (Hoffman and Sample 1988, Herkert et al. 1993, Renfrew and Ribic 2008).
  4. Remove linear woody features such as hedgerows and woody fencelines as well as adjacent woodlots to improve site suitability for grassland birds. Low density, scattered shrubs are acceptable and even required by some grassland birds such as Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, and Brown Thrasher (Sample et al. 2003, WDNR 2005, Kost et al. 2007).
  5. Use prescribed fire in conjunction with cutting and/or herbicides to prevent excessive woody encroachment. Burns scheduled outside the breeding season - either early spring (March-April) or fall (September-November) – are generally best for birds (Sample and Mossman 1997).
  6. Before using prescribed burning for grassland management, determine habitat objectives:
    • If managing for grassland birds with no residual vegetation or woody cover requirement, conduct short (1-2 years) burn rotations.
    • If managing for grassland birds that require a litter or shrub component, conduct longer rotations (>5 years).
    • For large sites, consider only burning portions of the property in a given year to diversify both the vegetation structure and bird community.
    • For remnant prairie sites with significant invasion of invasive cool-season grasses, burn as late as possible in the spring to set back the invasives.
  7. Manage small dry-mesic prairie sites for specific subsets of grassland birds rather than maximum species diversity (Vickery et al. 1999).
  8. Develop property-specific plans to control invasive species on prairies, such as yellow parsnip, spotted knapweed, and common buckthorn.
  9. Before grazing grasslands, consider site characteristics and management objectives:
    • If managing a prairie remnant with high native plant diversity, avoid grazing to protect rare plant communities and prevent their conversion to non-native grasses.
    • If managing a remnant prairie site degraded by a significant coverage of invasive shrubs and small trees, consider short-term grazing following mowing to suppress the woody growth. Consult a specialist to develop a grazing plan that benefits wildlife.

Ecological Opportunities

Ecological Landscape Opportunity Management Recommendations
Southeast Glacial Plains Major All
Southwest Savanna Major All
Western Coulees and Ridges Major All
Central Sand Plains Important 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
Western Prairie Important 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
Central Sand Hills Present 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Present 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

Research Needs

  1. Identify source and sink grassland habitats and determine habitat, land-use, and landscape features that contribute to differences in bird productivity (Koford and Best 1996, DeJong 2001, Guzy 2005).
  2. Investigate area and landscape requirements for healthy, viable grassland bird populations in addition to studies of species-specific area sensitivities (Sample and Mossman 1997).
  3. Determine the most beneficial arrangement of habitat types within landscapes for grassland birds. Evaluate productivity as well as daily and seasonal habitat use, including the post-fledging period (Guzy 2005).
  4. Determine the maximum threshold for woody vegetation for nesting grassland birds (Guzy 2005).
  5. Investigate adverse impacts of toxic chemicals to grassland birds nesting in or adjacent to agricultural fields (Vickery et al. 1999).
  6. Monitor dry-mesic prairie restoration and enhancement activities to assess their wildlife value and adaptively refine management activities.
  7. Anticipate and monitor impacts of corn and soybean biofuel production to grassland habitats. 


Key Sites

Key Partners

Funding Sources

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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