Dry Prairie

habitat photo
Photo 1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3 | Photo 4 | Photo 5
Extensive dry prairies on south-facing bluff. Note the characteristic interspersion of open prairie with woodland and forest in the draws. Morgan Coulee Prairie State Natural Area, Pierce County. Photo by Eric Epstein.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

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


Dry Prairie occurs on the very well-drained, thin soils (either rocky, gravelly, or sandy) of hillsides and river bluffs with southern or western aspects, but also on river terraces and flatter plains and ridgetops. These conditions typically support shorter and sparser vegetation than other prairie types. Dominant grasses include little blue-stem, side-oats grama, hairy grama, and prairie dropseed as well as prairie satin grass on the steep bluffs bordering the Mississippi River. Other plants prevalent in dry prairie include lead-plant, Pasque flower, stiff sandwort, silky aster, flowering spurge, whorled milkweed, and purple prairie-clover (Sample and Hoffman 1989, Henderson 1995, WDNR 2005, Kost et al. 2007).

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

Approximately 42,500 hectares of Dry Prairie occurred in Wisconsin prior to European settlement, generally on thinner, drier soils than Dry-mesic Prairie (Curtis 1959 cited in Sample and Hoffman1989). Although these areas were less suitable for crop production than more mesic sites, dry prairies suffered other forms of degradation. Heavy grazing, invasive species, and urban development have fragmented, isolated, and simplified this grassland type and woody succession jeopardizes remaining remnants (Sample and Hoffman 1989). While there are roughly 600 hectares of good quality dry prairie today, there are as many as 12,000 additional hectares of grazed dry prairie pastures, including former pastures that are succeeding to woods (Randy Hoffman, pers. comm.).  Today, most dry prairies persist as small, isolated remnants in several distinct environmental settings. They are most common on steep bluffs in southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless area. The underlying dolomite or sandstone bedrock here is close to the surface and can result in extremely thin soils. Some remnants occur in south-central Wisconsin where thin soils over fractured bedrock create ideal xeric conditions. However, most dry prairies in this area were heavily pastured and invaded by non-native grasses. In the relatively rugged Kettle Moraine region of southeastern Wisconsin, Dry Prairie occurs on gravelly knolls and hillsides. Remnants tend to be small and weedy and most often occur in a context of oak savanna or woodland. Dry Prairie also occurs on the sandy terraces bordering southwestern Wisconsin’s major rivers, e.g., the Wisconsin and Mississippi. Agriculture damaged many sites in this area and some have been converted to conifer plantations or corn production. Active restoration is occurring in places such as the Nature Conservancy’s Spring Green Reserve and Thomson Memorial Prairie, and a few areas such as Rush Creek State Natural Area in Crawford County contain extensive dry prairie remnants (WDNR 2005, E. Epstein, pers. comm.).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Dry Prairie was a fire-adapted, disturbance-prone system prior to European settlement. 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.

Cropland conversion and urban development have simplified grassland communities and suppressed, eliminated, or altered the ecological processes necessary to maintain them. The once continuous grassland landscape is now fragmented by fields, woodlots, roads, and other human developments (Steinauer and Collins 1996). Surrounding lands can sometimes constrain the use of management tools such as prescribed fire and also may facilitate invasions of undesirable plants. Although the xeric conditions of dry prairie sites prevents the establishment of some invasive species, aggressive forbs such as spotted knapweed, crown-vetch, and leafy spurge can still be problematic. Most dry prairie remnants are now too scarce, small, and isolated for locally extirpated plant species to recolonize from adjoining or nearby lands (Curtis 1971, Hoffman and Sample 1988, Sample and Mossman 1997, WDNR 2005).

Related WBCI Habitats: Dry-mesic Prairie, Oak Opening, Sand Barrens.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

Dry 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 or disturbed by agricultural and residential land uses, the surrounding landscape often determines bird use. Fragments embedded in landscapes with large amounts of grasslands and other open habitats may support Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper and other species requiring complexes of different cover types. Common breeders such as Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and Vesper Sparrow also will benefit from high-grass landscapes with higher nest productivity (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, Vesper Sparrow, and sometimes Lark Sparrow, especially if bare ground or sand blows are present (Sample and Hoffman 1989, Sample and Mossman 1997, Cutright et al. 2006). Where cliffs or sandy terraces occur at dry prairie sites, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Turkey Vulture, and Peregrine Falcon may breed (E. Epstein, pers. comm.). 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
Sharp-tailed Grouse b, w Formerly common nesting species but largely extirpated from this type.
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.
Peregrine Falcon b, m Uses cliffs and steep bluffs found at some dry prairie sites.
Upland Sandpiper b, m Occurs in prairies embedded in high-grass landscapes with some drier ridges and hummocks.
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 f Requires a shrub component.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow b, m Uses cliffs and steep bluffs found at some dry prairie sites.
Brown Thrasher b, m Requires a shrub component.
Clay-colored Sparrow b, m Requires 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.
Lark Sparrow b, m Occurs in areas with short vegetation, bare ground, and/or sand blows.
Grasshopper Sparrow B, M Prefers relatively short, patchy vegetation.
Bobolink b, m  
Eastern Meadowlark B, M  
Western Meadowlark b, m Prefers relatively short vegetation and <5% woody cover.


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 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 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 and Upland Sandpiper 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 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 spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, 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
Central Sand Hills Important 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13
Western Prairie Important 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 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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