Grassland bird species have experienced substantial declines in North America. These declines have been largely attributed to habitat loss and degradation, especially from agricultural practices and intensification (the habitat-availability hypothesis). A recent analysis of North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) "grassland breeding" bird trends reported the surprising conclusion that insecticide acute toxicity was a better correlate of grassland bird declines in North America from 1980-2003 (the insecticide-acute-toxicity hypothesis) than was habitat loss through agricultural intensification. In this paper we reached the opposite conclusion. We used an alternative statistical approach with additional habitat covariates to analyze the same grassland bird trends over the same time frame. Grassland bird trends were positively associated with increases in area of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands and cropland used as pasture, whereas the effect of insecticide acute toxicity on bird trends was uncertain. Our models suggested that acute insecticide risk potentially has a detrimental effect on grassland bird trends, but models representing the habitat-availability hypothesis were 1.3-21.0 times better supported than models representing the insecticide-acute-toxicity hypothesis. Based on point estimates of effect sizes, CRP area and agricultural intensification had approximately 3.6 and 1.6 times more effect on grassland bird trends than lethal insecticide risk, respectively. Our findings suggest that preserving remaining grasslands is crucial to conserving grassland bird populations. The amount of grassland that has been lost in North America since 1980 is well documented, continuing, and staggering whereas insecticide use greatly declined prior to the 1990s. Grassland birds will likely benefit from the de-intensification of agricultural practices and the interspersion of pastures, Conservation Reserve Program lands, rangelands and other grassland habitats into existing agricultural landscapes.
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