“They call it the circle of life for a reason,” said Liz Kubal, one of two USD undergraduate interns who worked on the project this summer in southeast South Dakota, considered the most natural segment of the river. “If our birds aren’t nesting correctly and our bird environment starts going down, then the insect environment might start getting too high. To keep a really good balance, you have to watch everything that’s going on.”

Before the Missouri River was dammed, cottonwood trees filled the floodplains. In the half century since the dams have been built, fewer cottonwoods are growing and more invasive plant species have sprouted in their place.

The USD research focuses on whether invasive plant species have impacted bird populations and nesting habits. The researchers look to see if the birds successfully hatch their young and if those young birds leave the nest like they had when the cottonwoods were more prevalent along the river banks. Another part of the research looks at aquatic insects and vegetation sampling in relation to the damming of the river.

David Swanson, Ph.D., professor in USD’s biology department and director of the Missouri River Institute, said the goal is to learn the impact of the river, so it can be managed to balance both flood control and the natural habitat. “What we’re interested in is making projections down the road. Then we can potentially make some adjustments that are better for the forest and the birds,” he said.

If changes in vegetation and bird populations are documented over time, researchers can use that data to project trends into the future. If the data documented show that the birds are thriving in specific habitats, then biologists could potentially re-create those environments by using more intensive management.

Watch and download a video of the research.

Download a photo: USD biology professor David Swanson and undergraduate interns Liz Kubal (left) and Audra Van Ekeren.

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