Oddballs or Innovators?

I spotted an upland sandpiper on top of a power pole last week.  In central Nebraska, that’s not really noteworthy – upland sandpipers are pretty common across much of the state.  They tend to nest in large open grasslands with short vegetation structure, and Nebraska has an abundance of that kind of habitat.  This particular sandpiper, however, was perched on a pole surrounded by what looked to be miles of contiguous cropland.  Seeing the sandpiper in that context got me thinking about how conservation scientists deal with patterns in data and, more particularly, the outliers that don’t fit those patterns.

This is not the upland sandpiper I saw surrounded by cornfields, but another one who was living where he was "supposed" to be living - in big open grasslands near Norden, Nebraska.

This is not the upland sandpiper I saw surrounded by cornfields, but another one who was living where he was “supposed” to be living – in big open grasslands near Norden, Nebraska.

My graduate research focused on grassland birds in fragmented prairies.  I categorized bird species by the size of prairie they tended to nest in.  Dickcissels and red-winged blackbirds seemed comfortable in really small prairies, grasshopper sparrows wanted a little more space, and bobolinks and upland sandpipers were usually in large prairies.  Now and then, of course, we’d find a bird in a prairie much smaller than it was “supposed” to be in.  An outlier.  I included those outliers in the data, and their behavior was averaged in with all the other sightings, but I treated them as an anomaly – not something important.  I wonder now if that was the right perspective.

As an ecologist, I see anomalies all the time.  Behaviors of plants or animals that don’t fit what I know – or think – to be the broad pattern of behavior of their species.  For example, during the spring migration of sandhill cranes, we tell visitors that cranes prefer to hang out in harvested fields or open treeless grasslands with short vegetation structure, but now and then we see a group of cranes feeding in tall grass beneath a grove of trees.  Plants can be surprising too.  Entire-leaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) and Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) typically grow in lowland sites in our Platte River Prairies, but occasionally, some individuals will establish on top of a sandy ridge.  As a third example, I pay close attention to what plant species cattle graze in our prairies.  Forage selection varies by season, but there are some plant species cattle just don’t like to eat – except now and then when I find a clearly-grazed patch of Canada goldenrod, tall dropseed, or some other plant cattle “don’t like”.

It’s easy to dismiss those odd observations as unimportant results of unique circumstances.  Maybe cranes sometimes find a food source so fantastic it overrides their discomfort with tall vegetation.  Rosinweed and milkvetch plants might colonize dry sandy areas because of a lack of competition, but they might not survive for long.  And who knows why cattle do what they do sometimes…?

We usually see rosinweed in lowland areas of our prairies, surrounded by other lowland tallgrass prairie plants.

We usually see rosinweed in lowland areas of our prairies, surrounded by other lowland tallgrass prairie plants.

An agronomist friend of mine has shown me photographs of upland sandpiper nests in crop fields he works with.  It’s not an unheard of phenomenon, but it’s not representative of how most upland sandpipers act.  The birds that nest in those crop fields may be birds that were less able to defend territories in more suitable habitat.  Alternatively, maybe those birds are pioneers, forging a new path for the survival of the species!

Rather than dismissing anomalies, maybe we should be pursuing them with as much energy as we spend looking for patterns.  In this rapidly changing world, individual plants and animals that can survive where others can’t might just hold the key to conservation success.  Maybe those individuals are adapting to conditions in ways others of their species haven’t.  If upland sandpipers could figure out how to nest successfully in crop fields, for example, that would open up a great deal of nesting habitat for a species that has largely disappeared from large areas of North America.  If rosinweed can adapt to a wider range of habitat types, that might be a pretty important strategy for its survival in the face of a rapidly changing climate.  Should we be looking harder for ways to identify and facilitate that kind of adaptation?

It’s a big, beautiful, complex world out there.  It’s tempting to categorize everything we see into tidy little bundles to and simplify that complexity.  Oddballs can make life difficult, after all.  On the other hand, Nikola Tesla, John Lennon, and Steve Jobs were pretty odd, but turned out to have pretty good ideas in the end.

Maybe outliers are noteworthy after all…

12 thoughts on “Oddballs or Innovators?

  1. I found this an especially interesting post as I’ve been noting for years what I’ve thought to be anomalous birds and animals living here in the center of a huge metropolitan area. Specifically we have had yellow-crowned night herons learning to forage next to in-town railroad tracks (in water-filled ditches) and on tree-shaded, closely mowed lawns. I’ve seen them strolling casually up the driveway next door to my house. And now we have bobcats venturing further and further into the city environment from the river bottoms where they first found living places in this area. My son has seen bobcats foraging around trash bags on a residential street two blocks from his house. I’ve seen coyotes loping along a streambed next to rush-hour traffic on the outskirts of Dallas. Maybe you are correct in speculating that some upland sandpipers are learning how to live on cropland and that may be at least part of the future for that species.

  2. I find more successful upland sandpiper, killdeer, horned lark, and mourning dove nests in fields that haven’t been tilled either before or after planting. Hence the use of herbicides are needed with no cultivation. Many would be surprised with the number of burrows present in the fields. Badgers, coyotes, foxes. Numerous ground squirrels keep them going. Long term no till fields are incredibly diverse.

  3. Forty years ago here in Central Iowa there were lots of small pastures and Western Meadowlarks were everywhere. Today there are few pastures and almost no Western Meadowlarks, but we are seeing Eastern Meadowlarks frequently along many farm to market roads. Upland Sandpipers are quite rare, but do seem to be nesting in no-till soybean fields along with a number of the field sparrows such as vesper and grasshopper.

  4. In the corner of Lancaster, Otoe, Gage and Johnson Counties in NE. Lots and lots of birds, despite the conflicting environments. We have a lot of Killdeers and Yellow Legs around the NRD lake we live adjacent to (just to name a couple). Mostly cropland around, with some CRP and pasture. Thousands of migratory birds most seasons, then a few summer breeders. This year about 20 American White Pelicans returned last week! But what relates to this post is that for the first time, last weekend, we saw a Bobwhite sitting on an Osage Orange branch fencepost down the road. First time. Beautiful moment driving by with it staring at the car. Used to Meadowlarks doing this, but a Bobwhite?! Fantastic!

  5. If I remember correctly, when I worked for Tim McCoy on his grassland bird/CRP research in Missouri, we found upland sandpiper, killdeer, and horned larks nesting in cropfields. Early in the growing season these locations were attractive to these species because they provided the structural features they need – relatively low amounts of vegetation biomass compared to the CRP fields and many of the other herbaceous communities in the surrounding landscape. The trouble with these crop fields as nesting sites, at that time, was that most nests would subsequently be destroyed by weed control/cultivation activities after the nests were initiated and before the young had left the nest. They were presumably ecological sinks. I’m not sure if Tim published this portion of his research, but here’s another resource that seems to tell the same same basic story:


    With increasing use of no-till technology, including Roundup Ready types of crops, maybe the suitability of crop fields as a nesting location for these types of birds is changing. But now we may have to determine what impacts a herbicide application (or two) may or may not have on eggs or nestlings (as opposed to a cultivation event in previous years).

    All in all, though, I suspect upland sandpipers aren’t learning to nest in new habitats (crop fields), they’ve probably been nesting in crop fields as long as crop fields have existed because crop fields provide the habitat features they’re attracted to. At least temporarily, early in the growing season. As they say, birds aren’t botanists, i.e., they tend to not care what species of plants make up the habitat they use. What they tend to care about is the structure that is provided (height, density, grass/forb ratio, amount of bare ground, amount of litter).

    But back to the premise of your post, I do think you’re right in that we have a lot to learn from the oddballs and that our tendency to think in terms of the widespread average/mean can give us an incomplete understanding of the world around us. It could be said that evolution is only possible because of the oddballs.

  6. As an oddball, I find this very interesting. As a person who despises mono-cropping, I worry that the oddballs may in fact be working towards a Mr. Burn’s type of animal. How can an Upland Sandpiper live in a cornfield when there is nothing to eat? How would they learn when to nest?

  7. Last year I found two upland sandpipers with a chick in an area where the only grassland for miles around was in the road right of way, and a surveyor for the Minnesota Breeding Bird atlas found a couple more out in the corn and soybean desert. Apparently this isn’t as isolated as I thought it was.

  8. I have been told that in Illinois some of the designated important bird areas are crop fields where migrants just happen to rest each year. Audubon is working with ranchers to have their beef certified as bird friendly. It is likely that certain management regimes on farms would help meet conservation objectives for certain species. I could see farming methods also being certified as bird friendly in the future. I’m sure it would be worthwhile for a farmer to get the certification to receive a premium price for their crop.

  9. Reblogged this on Words4Wildlife and commented:
    I attended a conference last week in Nebraska and was thrilled to meet Chris Helzer, of “The Prairie Ecologist.” I’ve followed this blog for several years, even though I don’t live in a prairie state, just because I admire his skill with words and pictures. Finding “words for wildlife” seems to come easily to Helzer, so I didn’t know what to say when he told me he’s “not a writer, just a biologist with a camera.” This humble guy is definitely a writer. In this post, for example, he conveys technical material in an approachable way. I also like his thought-provoking conclusion. Oh, to be as good at this as Helzer is …

    • Thanks for those very kind words, Julie. It was great to meet you last week. I’m glad you enjoyed my talk – it felt discombobulated to me, but I tried to wrap it up with some fun things…

      • Mid-afternoon on the last day of a conference is a horrible time slot, Chris, but you brought upbeat energy and good cheer to the presentation, as well as solid information about partnerships and communication. It seemed to me that the projects you described are a model for how to work positively with groups of people who, by others, might be seen as potential adversaries. And your blog is a model for effective outreach, as the numbers show. You had to cover two fairly different topics, but as I said, you did it effectively and with good cheer. I’m so glad I had the chance to meet you in person, and see you in action!


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