Theses and Dissertations

Issuing Body

Mississippi State University


Belant, Jerrold L.

Committee Member

Dibble, Eric D.

Committee Member

Martin, James A.

Committee Member

DeVault, Travis L.

Date of Degree


Document Type

Dissertation - Open Access


Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


College of Forest Resources


Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture


Growing concerns about climate change, foreign oil dependency, and environmental quality have fostered interest in perennial native grasses (e.g. switchgrass [Panicum virgatum]) for bioenergy production while also maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem function. However, biofuel cultivation in marginal landscapes such as airport grasslands may have detrimental effects on aviation safety as well as demography and conservation efforts for grassland birds including Dickcissels (Spiza americana). In 2011–2013 I studied the response of avian populations to vegetation composition and harvest frequency of switchgrass monocultures and native warm-season grass (NWSG) mixtures at B. Bryan farms in Clay Co. MS, USA. Four treatments incorporating switchgrass and NWSG with single and multiple annual harvesting were established on 16 experimental plots. I examined the relative abundance, aviation risk, and conservation value of birds associated with these treatments, evaluated contributions of habitat attributes and individual male quality towards territory productivity and determined effects of harvest regimens on nest success, nest density, and productivity for Dickcissels. Avian relative abundance was greater in switchgrass plots during winter months, whereas NWSG was favored by species during the breeding season. Conversely, treatment differences in aviation risk and conservation value were not biologically significant. Only 2.6% of observations included avian species of high risk to aircraft, suggesting that it may be feasible to use semi-natural grasslands at airports to provide grassland bird habitat while concurrently minimizing aviation risk. Regarding individual and habitat quality effects on nest survival and productivity, male song rate was not an effective surrogate for individual quality in demographic models. However, nest survival declined with increasing territory size and territories established earlier in the season had greater territory productivity relative to later arriving males, providing evidence that some metric of individual quality is important for grassland bird reproduction. Additionally, vegetation composition and harvest frequencies influenced nest density and productivity, but not nest survival. Native warm season grasses contained 54–64 times more nests relative to switchgrass treatments, and nest density was 10% greater in single harvest plots. My results suggest semi-natural grasslands can support grassland bird conservation while allowing for biofuel production and aviation risk management in airport landscapes.