Olivia and the Whistle-Pig

This post was written and illustrated by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Olivia is an excellent scientist and land manager, as well as a great writer.  In this post, she shares a recent experience with, and some interesting trivia about, a cute furry animal.

We had a visitor in the front yard the other day, which gave me a great opportunity to take some pictures of a mammal I don’t often get to see. This woodchuck (Marmota monax) has been spotted around our crew quarters here on the Platte River Prairies for a few weeks now, and appears to have taken up residence in our wood pile. I finally managed to spend some time watching it from the safety of the living room while it foraged in the yard for dandelion leaves.

I was so excited to see this woodchuck come so close, so I could see the details, from its little ears to the frosted tips of its fur. But while they may look cuddly, woodchucks are known for being pretty feisty and aggressive.

I haven’t had many experiences with woodchucks, also called groundhogs and whistle-pigs. (As an aside, I didn’t realize they were one in the same until I was in college. I have a friend Jessica, who’s probably reading this, who was there when I made the connection and exclaimed “Wait? You’re saying how much wood would a woodchuck chuck and Groundhog Day are the same thing?!”, and likes to bring it up whenever she can.) In fact, I’ve probably seen more yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris), a close cousin to woodchucks, while travelling in the Rocky Mountains than our local woodchucks. I remember hearing a few whistling while walking in the woods around my hometown in Iowa, but other than that, this may be the first one I’ve ever seen, especially this close!

One of the yellow- bellied marmots I saw and photographed while in Colorado in August. They look superficially similar to woodchucks, but their ranges don’t overlap, so there’s little risk of mistaking one for the other.

Unfortunately, the other experience I have with these mammals, and one that I’m sure many readers also share, is of their digging habits. My parents recently had one removed from their backyard because it was busy burrowing under their garage. Apparently they are also pests in gardens, which doesn’t surprise me since I watched the one in our yard munching happily away on dandelions for several minutes. I’m inclined to find ways to cohabitate peacefully with native animals that sometimes cause problems or destruction to human structures, and a quick Google search turned up a lot of advice on how to discourage woodchucks from taking up residence around your home or eating your gardens. But I’m not going to talk any more about that (though like many perceived “pest” species, the destruction they cause is likely inflated), because I think this woodchuck is adorable, and I was inspired to look up more information about them!

So here’s an informal list of some fun facts I dug up:

  1. The name does not actually refer to woodchucks chucking wood, but comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which means “digger”
  2. Baby woodchucks are called chucklings!
  3. They are really big squirrels! (Family Sciuridae)
  4. Their incisors grow 1/16” per week
  5. They can climb trees and swim
  6. They enter true hibernate over winter, surviving on stored fat instead of making food caches
  7. Their dens often provide homes for other animals like small rodents, reptiles, skunks, red foxes, and cottontails
  8. Woodchuck burrows have “bathroom” chambers
  9. The origins of Groundhog Day began in 1886, when an editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper wrote that the local groundhogs hadn’t seen their shadows, and therefore spring would be early
  10. Their bodies drop to 37 degrees during hibernation!
  11. And their heartbeats slow to 5 beats per minute!
  12. They have a top speed of 8 mph
  13. They are for the most part solitary, with males only hanging out with females during the breeding season and females taking care of their young
  14. They can eat a pound of food per sitting (a lot for a creature that weighs at most 15 lbs)
I love the black paws and legs of this woodchuck. It looks like she’s wearing gloves!
I could have watched this adorable creature waddling around the yard eating dandelions all day.

Photo of the Week – October 11, 2018

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

I have a complicated relationship with smooth sumac.  It’s a native prairie shrub and a long-term and important member of the grassland plant community.  On the other hand, it is often more abundant than I’d like, especially in smaller prairie fragments – altering habitat structure, shading out other plants, and offering protective and nurturing conditions for encroaching trees.  I don’t want to eradicate smooth sumac, but it can spread over large areas, and seems to be getting better at doing so as the climate changes.

In the fall, however, my relationship with smooth sumac gets a lot rosier.  I can’t think of any prairie plants that have a more striking autumn plumage, especially against a backdrop of golden grasses.  Photographing sumac leaves in the fall has become an annual tradition for me – one I very much enjoy.  The only problem is that I’m constantly trying to find new ways to photograph this plant, for which I already have a big library of images.  This year, I focused on a couple plants that leaves that weren’t just uniformly red.  One of those plants had leaves that seemed to be in various stages of their green to red transformation, and the other had patterns I can’t explain, but am very much entranced by.

These variegated leaves stood out among others in a small sumac patch, caught in the middle of their color transformation from green to red.
This is a closeup of the above leaf/leaflets.
I have no idea why these leaflets had these magnificent patterns, but I sure like ’em.
Again, a closer view of the same leaflets.

As soon as sumac drops its leaves our relationship will deteriorate again.  I’ll look upon the same plants I photographed this week with a sharp and wary eye, watching closely to see if they are trying to take over one of my favorite prairies.  For now, though, they sure are pretty, aren’t they?

Square Meter Photo Project – September

Maximilian sunflower dominated the plot at the beginning of September.

September was another phenomenal month for my square meter photography project.  There were lots of new species to add to my running total, but I also continue to be inspired by the simple process of trying to find beauty within a tiny space.  The month started with a continuation of the Maximilian sunflower flush from August and the myriad insects visiting those blooms.  However, as the sunflowers wilted, I continued to find plenty to photograph, including a few species I’d been hoping for and one (a vertebrate – see below) I’d never expected.

Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) on Maximilian sunflower.
Indiangrass in full bloom.
This damselfly was curling its long abdomen up above its head.  I caught it half way into its curling motion.
Maximilian sunflower against a cloudy sky.
A bold jumper (jumping spider) stops to look at me for a moment.
A metallic sweat bee (Augochloropsis fulgida) on Maximilian sunflower.
This Cope’s gray tree frog was the only vertebrate I managed to photograph all year (in my little plot).  It really made my day when I spotted it!

The growing season is quickly winding down now, and most of the plants in my little plot are well on their way toward winter dormancy.  Cold wet weather has greatly reduced the number of insects moving around, and even on warm days, the numbers are pretty low.  I’m going to keep photographing through the end of the year, but I’m guessing my species totals aren’t going to change much.  Right now, I’m enjoying photographing fall colors, and waiting for the first frosts and snows to bring some highlights to the browning leaves and stems.

With the tremendous help of several smart people, I’ve put together a reasonably good summary of the species I’ve found within the plot so far.  Counting a few from October as well, I have now photographed 98 different species of plants and animals in that square meter of prairie – all in 2018!  And yes, I’m really really hoping I can find at least two more…

That species list includes 12 plant species, 21 flies, 15 beetles, and 14 bees, along with butterflies, moths, mantids, spiders, ants, bugs, hoppers, aphids, barklice, grasshoppers, mites, and katydids.  Many thanks to Julie Peterson, James Trager, Mike Arduser, and Jim Kalisch for their identification help.

I spooked this milkweed bug off the butterfly milkweed plant in my plot and then spotted it a few minutes later crawling up a sunflower.
Wilting Maximilian sunflower blossoms.
An Arabesque orbweaver dangles on a silk thread.
Can you spot the tiny black beetle?
A syrphid fly on a dried Maximilian sunflower leaf.
This monarch was warming up and drying off when I arrived at my plot one morning.
This is a photo I showed earlier this month, but it was worth an encore.  Butterfly milkweed seed hanging on its pod.
A Maximilian sunflower leaf drying out as Autumn nears.

I’m really hoping this project will help raise awareness of and interest in prairies among people who might not otherwise think twice about an ecosystem they assume is just a bunch of grass.  Additionally, I’m hoping people will see how accessible the diversity and beauty of prairies can be.  I didn’t go looking for the best quality prairie in central Nebraska for this project – I chose the closest example of a restored (planted) prairie to my house.  Once I chose the spot, I just sat down and started paying attention.  Anyone can do the same thing in any prairie anywhere.  

If you think this project might be helpful to your own efforts to convince your friends or neighbors that prairies are interesting, feel free to send them to the web page I’ve created for the project.  I’m exploring several other ways to expand the reach of this effort, so stay tuned for more information on those, but for now, I’ve tried to synthesize the project within a single web page.

New Look, Same Blog

Hi everyone.  You’ve probably noticed a little different look to the blog this week.  I’m fiddling around with the format, hoping to create a better reading experience, especially for those of you reading this on your phones.  I’m not done messing around yet, but am at the point where some feedback would be helpful.

 This is just a random damselfly nymph photo from this past summer to give you something interesting to look at.  (I think it was likely coming out of the water to transform to its adult body – which is pretty cool!)

If you have a few minutes, I’d sure appreciate it if you could look back over the last several posts and then answer some quick questions about how those look and feel to you.  I’ll do my best to create a format that works for as many people as possible.  Even if you just answer the first question (about which device you use) that would be tremendously helpful.

Please answer the questions that apply to you and the device(s) you use.  If you want to provide more specific feedback, please leave a comment on this post (if you can figure out how to do that in this new format!) If you read this via email, you might have to click the post title to open it in a browser before you can comment.

Thank you very much for the help on this.  I appreciate your feedback and your patience as I muddle through this process.

Chris

Photo of the Week – October 5, 2018

Bison are pretty tough.  At our Niobrara Valley Preserve, and at many other sites in the upper Great Plains, bison make it through the winter without any supplementary feed. They just eat cured grasses, grow a thick coat, and plow through snow and ice as needed.  Bison don’t need humans to help with calving, and they protect their babies very effectively from predators.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that animals like that would be completely unfazed by a little rain.

Yesterday, some of our Nebraska staff took a trip up to The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands in the northern Loess Hills of Iowa.  Land steward James Baker led us on a very scenic hike before a band of cold rainy weather moved in.  We then piled into some trucks with James and Director of Stewardship Scott Moats and went to visit the resident bison herd.  The bison were peacefully grazing as we drove up, despite the pouring rain.  When we stopped, a small group came over to check us out. Here are a few photos of those rugged bison, who didn’t need to huddle in dry and heated pickups to stay comfortable.

P.S. In case you had any doubt about my nerd qualifications, here’s one more piece of evidence.  As I was working up these photos (in the backseat of a truck heading back to Nebraska) yesterday, I was looking closely at the streaks of rain captured by my camera.  Based on the size of a bison calf’s eye and the length of the rain streaks closest to those eyes, I estimated that my camera captured about an inch of raindrop fall during the 1/250 of a second the camera’s shutter was open.  Now, I’d want to do some actual measuring of bison calves’ eyes to check this, but based on that rough estimation, those raindrops were falling about 250 inches per second.  Now, if I convert that number to miles per hour, I get 14.2 mph.  A quick online search found that raindrops are estimated to fall at about 20 mph.  I was pretty close!!  I mean, given that I don’t really know how big a bison eye is or how close those raindrop streaks were to that eye…  (NERD)

A Bubble-Blowing, Rotten Plant-Eating, Gas Mask-Faced Picture-Winged Fly

Please join me for a moment to appreciate a fly that eats rotting vegetation and looks like it is wearing a gas mask while doing it.  Oh, it also has gorgeous decorative wings and likes to blow bubbles.  Yep, you read that correctly.

Delphinia pictaon a sunflower at Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Delphinia picta, a picture-winged fly, comes across as eccentric, to say the least.  Its appearance, alone, is remarkable.  The wings are distinctively shaped and patterned, and its long face really does look like it’s wearing a gas mask.  Though small (about 7mm in length), it’s a species that will catch your eye if you glance its way.

Both the adults and larvae of D. picta feed on rotting vegetation.  Mama flies lay their eggs in rotting vegetation, the larvae hatch out and feed on the same rotting vegetation, and after they pupate and become adults, they keep feeding on that same rotting vegetation – or a suitable subsitute.  It must taste good.  Oh, adults have also been documented eating the fermenting poop left behind by tree-boring long-horned beetles.  You know, for a change of pace.  

Delphinia picta can be distinguished from other similar species by the pattern on its wings, the dark-colored top of its abdomen, and its long gas-mask-looking face.  

The aforementioned bubble blowing behavior appears to be a result of the fly regurgitating a little of its most recent meal (likely rotting vegetation) and holding it as a bubble protruding from its mouth.  This might be used as part of a mating ritual (hubba hubba) or as a way to evaporate some of the liquid from its food for easier digestion.  Or maybe both.  

I looked all over online for a common name for this terrific species, but I couldn’t find anything besides Latin.  That seems unconscionable to me.  If there ever was a fly that deserved a nickname, this is it.  Let’s see if we can come up with one, shall we? 

Since picta means painted, that seems like an obvious component of any name we choose.  Since it prefers (did I mention this already?) to eat rotting vegetation, we could potentially call it the “Painted Compost Fly”, but I don’t love that.

Any fly with a face like this deserves a good nickname.

I guess we could just go with “painted fly”, but that’s too plain for such an interesting species.  I think we’ve got to include something about its diet.  I have a suggestion, but I don’t know if it’ll catch on.  I looked up synonyms for rotting and decaying and one of the more fun options is putrefying.  That’s a word we can work with.  See what you think of this option:

The Painted Putrefly.  

Yes?  No?  Can you do better?

Photo of the Week – September 27, 2018

One of my favorite aspects of my square meter photography project has been the chance to closely follow the lives of individual organisms over time.  For example, I’ve closely followed the progress of the two butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) plants within the boundaries of my square meter plot.  The plants bloomed beautifully back in late June, which was great, though fewer pollinators visited the flowers than I had hoped.  Perhaps correlated with that, only one seed pod was produced between those two plants.  Since then, I have been watching that one pod very very closely…

On the morning of September 24, the pod was just starting to open.

This week, that pod finally opened up, giving me the long-awaited chance to photograph some milkweed seeds within my plot.  As it turns out, it’s a good thing I was vigilant, because that pod opened up and emptied itself out out very quickly.  Within only a few days, the pod went from tightly closed to completely devoid of seeds.

By the afternoon of the same day (24th) the pod had opened up much more, exposing the seeds, which were beginning to dry out and fluff up.
The next day, September 25, the pod was wide open and seeds were beginning to fly out.
I was traveling on the 26th, so didn’t get to check in on my plot.  By the 27th, only three days after the pod opened, it was empty.  Some of the seeds landed close by, but others flew much further away.

While many of the seeds were blown well out of my little plot, a handful got stuck on adjacent plants, giving me the chance to photograph them.  Here are some photos of those seeds as they were coming out of the pod or after they got hung up within the borders of my plot.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Marvels at the Persistence of Plants

This post was written by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Olivia is an excellent scientist, with strong expertise in plants and plant communities, as you’ll be able to see from this post.  

As a biologist with broad interests, I can usually find something to love in all living things, but I’ll admit that plants have a special place in my heart. This is probably a good thing, since I’ve spent the majority of my education and professional life cultivating my knowledge of plants. I’ve found that they are often underappreciated and often overlooked, which is a shame, because plants are some of the most amazing organisms out there (in my humble opinion).

Plants, in most places, not only form the basis of the food chain, but also provide the structure of habitat. A forest with towering trees is very different than an open grassland or a sparsely vegetated desert, and the animals that live there respond accordingly. Plants are eaten, trampled underfoot, exposed to the whims of the weather, and just generally beaten down by the world around them, all on top of competing with each other for resources and space. But while plants have it rough, they are also really good at persisting.

Trees are an excellent example of just how persistent plants can be. I was reminded of this earlier in the summer when I came across a grove of cottonwoods in one of our Platte Prairies while searching for musk thistles. At first glance I thought one of the cottonwoods had recently fallen and the leaves hadn’t died back yet. On closer inspection, however, I realized that the tree had probably fallen years ago, and instead of dying, the parts of the trunk that now contacted the earth had sprouted roots and continued on living. Branches had grown up from the trunk,and now looked essentially like three trees, all connected by the same fallen trunk.

This cottonwood, in true tree fashion, just refused to die. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Trees are clearly hard to kill, as anyone who’s tried to cut down a deciduous tree in your yard knows. Once the tree is cut you have to treat the stump with herbicide, otherwise the still-living roots will simply sprout again. Nearly every tree we cut here on the Platte to keep our prairies open needs to be treated with an herbicide. While it would be nice to not have to use chemicals in our stewardship work like this, that resilience of trees can also be a blessing. After the wildfire at our Niobrara Valley Preserve a few years ago, much of the forest along the river was killed. However, the oaks along the slopes are re-sprouting from their roots, as only the tops of the trees had been killed in the blaze. Because of this, these forests have a jump start on regenerating after the devastation of the fire.

It’s probably a good thing musk thistles are so showy, otherwise it would be much more difficult to find them.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Since I found that cottonwood looking for musk thistles, it’s probably worth talking about them and their own resilient strategies. As a biennial, these plants only have one chance to flower and produce seeds, so they produce thousands of them at a time. And they can fly. That’s not great for us, considering they are considered noxious weeds here in Nebraska, but as a strategy for this plant it certainly pays off.

But wait, there’s more! Even when uprooted or sprayed with herbicide, if the flowers on a musk thistle plant have been pollinated, they will still produce seeds! So when we control this plant, we not only cut off the root just under the ground and pull it out, we have to collect any flowers, or else nothing will actually have been controlled. This persistent ability of musk thistles makes things more difficult and time consuming for us to control, but you have to admit that it’s a cool adaptation, and in its native habitat, likely very useful.

We collected about three tubfuls of musk thistle flowers by the end of the control season. We let the flowers rot to make sure any seeds were destroyed before throwing them out.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

So far these examples relate back to land management, and how the difficulty in killing plants affects our ability to effectively manage invasive plants in prairies. But we rely on these same tenacious qualities in our native prairies species as well. Chris talks a lot about the resilience of prairies on this blog, and a lot of that depends on the persistent nature of individual plants.

Consider big bluestem, a favorite of both cattle and bison. It can be cropped down again and again to within an inch of the ground over a growing season, but while such trauma might kill another plant, big bluestem holds on until the herd moves on and it gets a break, coming back taller and stronger the next year, until it’s back to full strength within a few years. In addition, even in those years that it’s hammered by grazing, big bluestem will find a way to flower, since all that short and weak vegetation around them makes for a good place to put out seeds.

This patch of big bluestem has been hit pretty hard by cows this year, but that didn’t stop it from blooming.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Other plants may just find that conditions in a certain year aren’t for them. Maybe it’s too dry, or too cold, or the grasses around them are just too tall. Perennial prairie plants don’t let that stop them, as many will simply take a break, growing very little above ground for a year, relying more on stores of energy in their roots than anything else. To some, it may seem like those plants have died and disappeared from a field. But just wait, when conditions become favorable, most of those plants will show up again, just as strong, and benefiting from that strategy of waiting it out through the hard times.

Now, just because plants are tough doesn’t mean they’re invincible. If put under too much stress even the most stubborn plant will eventually die. Knowing how plants are able to persist can help us more effectively target those plants we don’t want, but also help ensure that our desirable plants always have a chance to let their persistent nature shine!

Photo of the Week – September 21, 2018

I spent much of this week in northern Nebraska, attending various events and staying at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It rained much of the time, but I caught a break in the clouds Monday evening and happened upon the bison in our east herd as the sun was going down.  I spent about an hour and a half tagging along with them as they moved slowly toward the setting sun.  If you haven’t spent much time with bison, one of the things you notice immediately is how quiet they are.  Apart from some contented grunting, the primary sounds I heard as I accompanied them was the crunching of their hooves in the grass and the sound of them tearing mouthfuls of food from the prairie.  It was very peaceful, and provided the perfect accompaniment to the sun going down over the hills.

Choosing Your Destination Before You Choose Your Mode of Transport

Last week, I attended a science and stewardship conference of The Nature Conservancy in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was an inspiring and thought-provoking week.  There were a lot of topics that will provide fodder for future blog posts, but I wanted to start with an issue that came up in several sessions.  The topic had to do with setting appropriate objectives for conservation strategies, and for land management in particular.  In short, it’s really important to make sure we’re not setting objectives that are focused on strategies rather than outcomes.

This mixed-grass prairie is managed with both prescribed fire and grazing.  However,  neither fire nor grazing is the objective, they are tools that are strategically employed to create desired outcomes.  Gjerloff Prairie – Prairie Plains Resource Institute

Here’s an illustration of what I mean.  If I was planning a vacation for next summer, I probably wouldn’t start with the following question: “What mode of transportation should I take on my vacation next year?”

Clearly, it’s tough to answer that question without knowing more about the ultimate objectives of the vacation.  Where do I want to go?  What time of year am I going?  How many people are going with me?  If I’m planning to travel from Nebraska to Ireland, I probably won’t be able to do that by bus.  I could conceivably travel by motorcycle (if I had one) to the Rocky Mountains, but probably not if I was going during the winter or planning to take little kids with me.

It seems silly to start by thinking about how to get somewhere before deciding where to go, but as land managers, it’s easy to fall into exactly that mindset.  We sometimes set objectives about using fire or grazing, for example, instead of first defining the outcome we want and then thinking about what tools and strategies might get us there (which may or may not include fire or grazing).  In this post, I’ve provided examples of how this trap can present itself, both to managers of conservation land and private landowners, and some thoughts about how to avoid the trap.

Significant research has helped us understand the kinds of fire and grazing patterns under which North American prairies developed.  For example, in many places, we have a pretty good idea how often a particular site burned, on average, before European settlement.  We also have reasonably good information on the presence, abundance, and behavior of historic grazers.  Based on that information, a land manager could decide that the best management for their prairie would be to reinstate, as closely as possible, the timing and intensity of historic fire and grazing that site likely evolved under. 

Historically, prairies in this region probably burned on an average of every 4-5 years.  However, within that average range, there would have been wide variation.  More importantly, this prairie sits within a very different landscape today, with challenges not faced by those historic prairies.

Patch-burn grazing is often described, for example, as “mimicking historic fire and grazing patterns.”  Mob grazing advocates trumpet (though I’m skeptical) that their system replicates the way bison moved across a landscape.  Some in the Upper Midwest region of North America point to research showing high populations of indigenous people and scarce evidence of abundant bison and argue that their prairies should be managed only with fire.  We can argue about all three of those examples – and many more – but the bigger point is that none of those arguments should determine our management strategies.  Again, we shouldn’t be setting objectives about the strategy we want to use without first identifying the outcome we want.

To make a clunky return to my vacation travel analogy, it would be silly of me to choose horseback as my preferred mode of transportation across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains just because it’s what worked several hundred years ago.  Today’s landscape is broken up into countless fenced off private land parcels, which would make cross-country horse travel difficult, to say the least.  In addition, there is a pretty nice set of modern opportunities (roads and vehicles) I can take advantage of nowadays.

Likewise, our prairies exist within a different world today, with a new set of challenges and opportunities.  Mimicking historic disturbance regimes won’t necessarily keep prairies in good shape in a world with habitat fragmentation, massive invasive species pressure, climate change, nitrogen deposition, and other factors.  And speaking of good shape, our first and primary concern should really be to define what “good shape” is, right?  Are we managing for plant diversity or a few rare plants?  Are we trying to sustain diverse bird populations?  Habitat heterogeneity? Is ecological resilience the goal?  If so, what are the factors driving resilience, and how to we sustain those?  There are countless reasonable goals for land managers to choose from, many dependent upon scale, but those goals should be based on the outcome we want.

This annually-hayed prairie maintains high plant diversity but provides only one type of habitat structure for nesting birds and other wildlife species.  Depending upon the objectives for the site, that could be fine, but it very much depends upon what the manager wants to accomplish.

I feel it’s important to say this here:  I am a big proponent of both fire and grazing as management tools – you can find myriad examples of that by searching through my previous blog posts.  However, while I think combining fire and grazing can create some fantastic results, those strategies/results don’t fit all objectives.  More importantly, your particular site may or may not respond well to those kinds of fire and grazing combinations.

Let’s say your primary objective is to provide habitat for as many species of grassland birds as possible.  First, you’ll need a pretty big swath of land – many bird species have minimum habitat size requirements.  Assuming you’ve got sufficient land, the major factor grassland nesting birds respond to is habitat structure.  Some birds prefer tall thatchy structure, others like short/sparse vegetation, and others want something in-between.  A reasonable outcome-based objective might be that you want to provide all three of those habitat types across your prairie each year (and you’ll want to make sure the habitat are being successfully used by a diverse bird community).  Perfect.  Now, how will you create those habitat types?

 Grasshopper sparrows tend to nest in prairies with relatively short structure, but with some thatch (which they use to build nests) along the ground.  Some of the highest abundances of grasshopper sparrows around here are found in relatively heavily-grazed prairie.

Fall or spring fires can create short habitat structure that some birds really like to nest in.  However, some bird species (e.g., grasshopper sparrows) usually like short habitat with a little more thatch in the ground layer than is usually found in recently burned prairies.  Also, while burned areas are short and unburned areas are tall, it’s difficult to create in-between height/density habitats using only fire.  This is where other tools such as mowing and grazing might be helpful.  Mowing can reduce the height of tall vegetation and create short or mid-height structure that grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, and other species prefer.  Grazing can do the same and can have the advantage that cattle or bison are selective grazers, eating some plants and leaving others.  This can create structure with both tall and short vegetation mixed together and can also help suppress grasses and allow for greater expression of forbs (broadleaf plants) – something birds such as dickcissels often prefer.

Upland sandpipers prefer to nest where vegetation structure is short, but often move to sites with strong forb cover and a little patchier structure when their chicks become active.

If we’re trying to create optimal bird habitat, then, fire, mowing and grazing might all be useful tools to consider.  It’s important to understand how each tool can be used to affect habitat structure, as well as the potential risks of using each (fire can sometimes kill aboveground animals and stimulate invasive plants, grazers can sometimes target vulnerable plants and create issues via trampling).  With all of that information, you can start putting together strategies that employ the right tools, and then test those strategies against the OUTCOMES you desire.  Notice that the process I’ve just described is independent of the kinds of historic fire returns for your area or whether or not you think grazing was a significant factor in the evolution of regional plant communities.  Define your objective by the outcomes you want and test/adapt strategies based on that objective.

Other examples: At my family prairie, we aren’t using prescribed fire because we’ve been able to use grazing to meet our objectives of habitat heterogeneity and increasing plant diversity, and we use loppers/herbicide to successfully control woody invasion.  In small prairies where preserving particular plant species is the objective, a strategy using only fire or mowing could be most appropriate.  If that small prairie has rare insects or reptiles that are especially vulnerable to fire, maybe mowing is the best tool.  Regardless, the right tools and strategies depend upon the outcome-based objective.

This photo was taken in the burned patch of a patch-burn grazed prairie at Konza prairie, near Manhattan, Kansas.  The grazing created varied habitat structure because of the selective grazing by cattle.  Leadplant and other ungrazed forbs contrast with surrounding short grasses.

For ranchers and farmers who manage prairies, this same objective setting process should apply, but of course those prairies also have to help provide sufficient income to keep a family or business thriving.  Even in those cases, however, it’s still important to start with outcome-based objectives.  Those objectives can include a certain amount of needed income but should also include specific habitat or other ecological objectives.  Once you’ve decided, for example, that you really want to manage in a way that provides a certain amount of quail habitat or provides consistent pollinator resources through the season, you can look for ways to accomplish that while still providing the needed income.  When a conflict between income and habitat objectives arises, you can make the decisions that make sense to you, but at least you’re making those decisions with all the information needed to fully consider the options.

Prescribed fire can be a great tool for accomplishing some objectives, but it can also be difficult to implement for some managers.  While it is an important ecological process in prairies, employing prescribed fire should still be seen as a tool/strategy, rather than as an objective in and of itself.

There are plenty of reasonable prairie management objectives to choose from, but they should be based on outcomes rather than on tools and strategies.  Employing more frequent prescribed fire is not a good objective.  However, using more frequent prescribed fire might be a great strategy to reach a particular outcome.  (It could also be a terrible strategy, depending upon your objective.)  Don’t fall into the trap of choosing your transportation method before you know where you want to go. 

P.S. I’m sure some of you are thinking it, so let me address what might appear to be a weakness of my vacation transportation analogy.  Yes, it’s perfectly fine to start vacation planning by deciding that you want to take a cruise ship or motorcycle if the OUTCOME you really want is to ride on a ship or motorcycle.  If you don’t care where you go, the destination isn’t the outcome, it’s just a by-product of your mode of travel.  Fine.  But I think you understand what I was trying to say, right?  Sure, you could argue that conducting prescribed fires could be your objective if all you want is a legal way to light things on fire and watch them burn.  If that’s your objective, though, you’re not managing prairies, you’re lighting things on fire – and there’s a big difference.  Ok?  Ok.