Northern Sedge Meadow and Marsh

habitat photo
Photo 1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3 | Photo 4 | Photo 5
Northern Sedge Meadow. Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, Bayfield County. Photo by Darienne McNamara.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

Cowardin: Palustrine; emergent wetland, persistent (Cowardin et al. 1979).
Shaw and Fredine: Type 2: Inland fresh meadow (Shaw and Fredine 1971).
Vegetation of Wisconsin: Northern and southern sedge meadow (Curtis 1971).
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Natural Communities: Northern Sedge Meadow, Shore Fen, Central Poor Fen, Poor Fen (WDNR 2005).
Wisconsin Wetland Inventory: Emergent/wet meadow, narrow-leaved persistent (WDNR 1992).


Northern Sedge Marsh is a wetland community co-dominated by sedges, spike-rushes, bluejoint grass, and emergent vegetation with at least 20% open water. Northern Sedge Meadow is an open wetland community dominated by sedges and grasses with woody cover <5% (Sample and Mossman 1997). Northern sedge meadows vary widely in plant composition across their range and are categorized in two distinct subtypes: tussock meadow densely vegetated with tussock sedge and broad-leaved sedges such as common lake sedge, beaked sedge,and common yellow lake sedgeand wire-grass sedge meadow sparsely vegetated with bluejoint grass and thin wire-grass sedges such as few-seeded sedgeand narrow-leaved woolly sedge (Mossman and Sample 1990). Forb species common to both subtypes include arrow-leaved tear-thumb, purple-stem aster, common flat-topped goldenrod, and rough bedstraw (Curtis 1971, Mossman and Sample 1990). Species that characterize northern but not southern sedge meadows include fringed brome, bulblet water-hemlock, rattlesnake grass, northern blue flag, northern bugleweed, and meadow willow. Northern sedge meadows also feature higher densities of bulrushes such as black bulrush (Curtis 1971) and occasionally support a sphagnum moss groundcover similar to but less continuously distributed than in open bogs (WDNR 2005).

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

Sedge meadows historically covered approximately 459,000 hectares in Wisconsin. Today, approximately 12,000 hectares (3%) remain in moderate to high quality condition. Although many of the remaining meadows are highly fragmented, some large tracts such as Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area persist along and north of the tension zone (Mossman and Sample 1990). Northern sedge meadows occur in extinct glacial lake beds, depressions in glacial moraines or pitted outwash, and around lake and stream shorelines (Curtis 1971).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Sedge meadows and marshes frequently exist in a state of transition and thus are highly sensitive to hydrologic disruption. Natural succession to an herb-dominated or shrub-dominated wetland community can occur with either prolonged drought or flooding. Emergent marsh may replace sedge meadow at sites experiencing extended periods of soil saturation, such as cranberry farms or other publicly-owned water impoundments. Sites with drier conditions may support higher shrub densities and succeed to an alder thicket or shrub-carr community. Wildfire may have limited this woody encroachment and maintained historic northern sedge meadow habitats in Wisconsin, particularly within the fire-prone landscapes of Northwest Sands and Central Sand Plains. Widespread fire suppression policies enacted in the first half of the twentieth century, especially when they coincided with wetland drainage schemes, likely expedited the conversion of sedge meadow to shrub swamp or lowland forest (E. Epstein, pers. comm.).

Differences in substrate also may contribute to differences in the plant composition and successional sequence of sedge meadows and marshes. Some northern sedge meadows may eventually succeed to conifer swamp or other peatland communities, depending upon the nature and depth of the peat (Mossman and Sample 1990). Sedimentation caused by urban development, agriculture, and grazing may reduce the microtopography required by native sedge meadow species and facilitate invasive species establishment. Reed canary grass and cat-tail in particular can form monospecific colonies that simplify the plant composition of northern sedge meadow and marsh communities (Werner and Zedler 2002).

Related WBCI Habitats: Southern Sedge Meadow and Marsh, Open Bog-Muskeg, Shrub-carr, Alder Thicket, Emergent Marsh.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

Despite their structural simplicity, sedge meadows and marshes are very important to Wisconsin’s avifauna as they contain several habitat specialists and species of high conservation priority. Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow, and Yellow Rail are considered specialists of this habitat type and American Bittern and Sedge Wren are more abundant in sedge meadows than any other habitat type in Wisconsin. The American Bittern increases in sedge meadows with wetter conditions (Mossman and Sample 1990, Robbins 1991, Dechant et al. 2003a) while Sedge Wren presence is positively correlated with maximum height of vegetation, herbaceous cover, and “standing residual cover” (Sample 1989).

Other species have less specific requirements and may occur in a variety of wet grassland habitats. However, as the quality and extent of these other habitats continues to decline, sedge meadow complexes become increasingly important in providing stable habitat for these species. The grassland-associated Bobolink has been significantly impacted by the loss of its preferred habitats and may become more reliant on the remaining sedge meadows in the state. Area-sensitive grassland species such as Northern Harrier, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Yellow Rail, Short-eared Owl, and possibly Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Wilson’s Phalarope, also take refuge in northern sedge meadow habitats as the surrounding landscape becomes progressively more fragmented (Mossman and Sample 1990).

Northern sedge marshes (as distinct from meadows) are characterized by a mixture of meadow and marsh conditions and support a few species that require open water. Red-necked Grebe, Trumpeter Swan, Black Tern, and Blue-winged Teal are all characteristic nesting species of most sedge marshes in northern and central Wisconsin. Sedge marshes also provide habitat for migratory waterbirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds. In particular, shorebirds use the shallow mudflats exposed after managed drawdowns or natural water level fluctuations (Mossman and Sample 1990).

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Canada Goose
(Mississippi Valley Population)
Trumpeter Swan B Breeds in sedge marshes with abundant submerged aquatic plants.
American Black Duck b, m Nests in areas interspersed with emergent vegetation and open water.
Mallard B, M Requires adjacent upland habitat for nesting.
Northern Pintail b, m Prefers areas interspersed with emergent vegetation and open water.
Blue-winged Teal B, M Requires adjacent upland habitat for nesting.
Lesser Scaup m  
Hooded Merganser b, m If nest cavities available nearby.
American Bittern B Found in sedge meadows and marshes >20 ha.
Great Egret f, m Forages during post-breeding movements in sedge marshes.
Snowy Egret m Rare migrant in sedge marshes.
Osprey f Forages in sedge marshes with fish populations.
Bald Eagle F Forages in sedge marshes with fish populations.
Northern Harrier B, M Found on larger sedge meadow/marsh sites.
Sharp-tailed Grouse b, m, w Large sedge meadow complexes.
Greater Prairie-Chicken b, m, w  
Yellow Rail b, m Specialist; prefers larger wiregrass sedge meadows and marshes. 
Whooping Crane b, f Assumed that this species will one day breed and forage in this type.
American Golden-Plover m Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Greater Yellowlegs M Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Solitary Sandpiper M Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Whimbrel m Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Hudsonian Godwit m Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Marbled Godwit m Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper m Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Short-billed Dowitcher m Found in sedge marshes with exposed mudflats.
Wilson’s Phalarope b, m Requires some standing water and large tracts.
Black Tern b Needs larger sedge marshes with floating nesting substrate.
Short-eared Owl b, m, w Very rare nester; forages in large sedge meadows during migration and winter.
Sedge Wren B Prefers stands of tall, dense vegetation with a dense litter layer.
Common Yellowthroat B Prefers tall, rank herbaceous cover.
Le Conte’s Sparrow B Specialist; prefers wiregrass sedge meadows and marshes
Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow b Specialist; prefers wiregrass sedge meadows in northwest Wisconsin. 
Swamp Sparrow B Prefers tall, rank herbaceous cover.
Bobolink B Common breeder in larger sedge meadow areas.


Stay tuned……. will incorporate habitat acreage objectives from Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture Implementation Plan.

Management Recommendations

Landscape-level Recommendations

  1. Maintain and protect sedge meadow complexes >40 ha to provide habitat for area-sensitive species like Northern Harrier, Yellow Rail, Short-eared Owl, and American Bittern (Mossman and Sample 1990, Sample and Mossman 1997, Dechant et al. 2003a, Dechant et al. 2003b, WDNR 2005).
  2. Where applicable, maintain sedge meadows in conjunction with open bogs, muskegs, poor fens, and other open habitats to protect hydrological function and provide for a diverse suite of species (WDNR 2005).
  3. Maintain wetland function and biodiversity by minimizing impervious surfaces, limiting development, and reducing soil loss and nutrient delivery within watersheds.
  4. Encourage wetland management, protection, and restoration efforts on private lands through existing federal and state programs and by educating private landowners on wetland stewardship.

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Avoid soil disturbance (e.g., pothole creation, heavy grazing, or construction of level ditches) within this type to prevent the establishment of invasive plant species (WDNR 2005).
  2. Avoid habitat conversion by properly managing water levels within sedge meadows (i.e., avoid permanent flooding or drainage; Mossman and Sample 1990, WDNR 2005).
  3. Use prescribed fire or mechanical treatments on a periodic basis to prevent woody invasion in sedge meadow habitats (WDNR 2005). 
  4. Because site conditions vary, develop property-specific plans to control invasive species such as reed canary grass and cat-tail (see

Ecological Opportunities

Ecological Landscape Opportunity Management Recommendations
Central Sand Plains Major All
North Central Forest Major All
Northern Highland Major All
Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Major All
Northwest Lowlands Major All
Northwest Sands Major All
Central Lake Michigan Coastal Important All
Central Sand Hills Important All
Forest Transition Important All
Northeast Sands Important All
Southeast Glacial Plains Important All
Superior Coastal Plain Important All
Western Coulee and Ridges Important All
Western Prairie Present All

Research Needs

  1. Implement a marshbird monitoring program to adequately measure abundance, distribution, population status, and habitat use of key species within northern sedge meadows and marshes.
  2. Identify sedge meadows and marshes in need of protection, restoration, and/or management within all ecological landscapes.
  3. Investigate the effects of different management regimes such as fire, mowing, or passive management on nesting sedge meadow birds in Wisconsin.
  4. Determine appropriate water level management, including timing of high and low water, to maintain this natural community.
  5. Monitor sedge meadow and marsh restoration and enhancement activities to assess their wildlife value and adaptively refine management activities.
  6. Study the role of beaver in maintaining (or inundating) sedge meadows.


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.

Website by J Davis Web Design