Color, Movement and Noise

A couple months ago, I wrote a post asking you how you evaluate your prairies as you walk around them.  I appreciated the thoughtful responses you shared.  This week, I’ll be facilitating a discussion on the same topic at the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference.  As I’ve been preparing for that discussion, my mind keeps returning to a brief conversation I had at the end of this year’s Patch-Burn Grazing Workshop.

The annual workshop is hosted at different sites each year.  This summer, we hosted it at our Platte River Prairies.  As we were finishing the last tour of our site and walking back to the vehicles, Wayne Copp, of the Tall Grass Bison Ranch in Auburn, Kansas, caught up with me.  He told me how much he had enjoyed the tours and that he thought our prairies looked great.  I thanked him, of course – it’s always nice to hear that.  But then he went on…

“A lot of prairies I visit,” he said, “look pretty dead – there’s not much going on. But your prairies are really alive, and they’ve got the three things I always look for in grasslands.”

“Which are?” I asked.

“Color, movement and noise.”

And there you go.  I’ve not heard a more concise, all-encompassing description of a good prairie.  Even better, you don’t have to be a botanist or ecologist to recognize color, movement and noise.  Anyone, regardless of age or background, can walk through a prairie and judge whether or not that prairie has those qualities.

Color is easy to find in many prairies.  Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.

Color is easy to find in many prairies. Wildflowers are an obvious source of color, but not the only one.

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A closer look at most wildflowers reveals abundant movement – much of it by visiting insects, such as these pollinators on a native thistle.

Birds such as this dickcissel can provide color, movement and noise all by themselves...

Birds such as this dickcissel can provide color, movement and noise all by themselves, but a site needs more than just birds to be a prairie.

Of course, some of you are already asking, “How MUCH color, movement and noise should there be?”

But Wayne’s criteria for judging prairies (at least as I understand them) are not meant to be quantitative.  Sure, more is better, but that’s not really the point.  I think he’s just saying that a prairie without color, movement and noise is deficient.  Clean and simple.

Much of the "noise" in prairies is created by insects, though they are far from the only sources, which can include birds, mammals, wind, and many others.

Much of the “noise” in prairies is created by insects, though they are far from the only sources, which can include birds, mammals, wind, and many others.

ENPO100913_D010

A great deal of the movement, color and noise in prairies can be hidden from those who just drive past at 65 miles per hour.  However, anyone who takes the time to walk out into the prairie will have no trouble finding it.

Sure, we still need other indicators and measures that can help us identify trends in plant diversity or species’ population viability.  We still need to figure out what to look for as we evaluate past management actions and plan the next ones.   And we still need to better understand what factors can indicate whether a prairie is ecologically resilient.

Unfortunately, only those of us who spend the majority of our time working in prairies can get much good out of those highfalutin indicators, measures, and factors.  They are important, but only to a small subset of people.  For everyone else – and us prairie wonks too – Wayne has already figured out the three essential qualities every prairie should have.

Color, movement and noise.

Brilliant.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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14 Responses to Color, Movement and Noise

  1. Melissa says:

    Beautifully stated! I will be sharing this tid-bit with others :)

  2. karen pruiett says:

    Lovely! I completely agree!

  3. Nate Walker says:

    Great thoughts! That will become the yardstick that I use to “measure” prairies from now on. Like you said it’s concise, but it so aptly describes what a good prairie should have.

  4. anastaciast says:

    Two thoughts:
    1. I was watching “Microcosmos” the other day. It’s a French-made show about a meadow. Maybe it was on IMAX? It was fascinating to see so many things that we know in our heads appear on the screen. And, boy, that insect world was noisy!

    2. Europeans arriving on their homesteads complained of a lack of noise. Women would keep canaries.

    Now, this is off-topic; but I have been wondering for years why the vast majority of blooming Fall prairie plants are yellow. Maybe this is also a question for Jonathan?

  5. steve says:

    Wayne and I travel together to many of the pbg meetings and he has hosted events on his own prairie west of Topeka. He has mentioned his observation to me many times. His prairie is really alive, not like many ‘preserved’ prairies.

  6. Karen Hamburger says:

    Chris
    I think that is why walking on a prairie, or in natural settings in general is so therapeutic. It helps get us out of our heads and shuts off the noise in our brains and takes us to a different place where our problems don’t seem so pressing.

    Great post

    Karen

  7. James McGee says:

    It is ironic that the reason I often visit a prairie is to escape the stimuli that Mr. Copp looks for in a prairie.

    • James C. Trager says:

      I think I get what you’re saying, James, but don’t you mean the gaudy artificial colors, human bustle, and all the mechanical noise of our society? Surely not the color, movement and noise of the prairie!

  8. Patrick says:

    I guess those criteria could also judge the quality of our own back yards. I am amazed how much life can be attracted to even a small garden filled with native plants, a water feature, and an assortment of (mostly) native trees and flowering shrubs. For example, my apple tree supports so many living things from the day it begins blooming until the last apple falls in late autumn….countless insects, migrating and resident birds, small mammals, and of course the humans that enjoy the shade and its apples. To me, this tree is the very essence of a “tree of life”.

  9. David says:

    What is a “dead” prairie? Or, as one of the readers suggests, a “preserved” prairie? Overgrazed maybe?

    I guess color, movement and noise is a relative thing. There is plenty of it in downtown Chicago. Interestingly, we have friends from Chicago that get “wigged” out when they visit us in prairie country. “It’s just too quiet and too many scary places for things to hide” is the comment we hear. Again, it’s all relative. I get “wigged” out in Chicago!

    Color, movement and noise as it relates to prairie diversity it a good thing. But my all time favorite prairie experience is open country as far as I can see, no wind, and deer, elk or bison sparring off in the distance but absolutely no sound can be heard. The vastness of the place absorbs all the sound. You feel small, insignificant, but very much alive!

    David

    • Chris Helzer says:

      David, good question about the “dead” prairie. I can’t speak for Wayne, but I have certainly seen supposed prairies in which it seems not much is happening. Chronically overgrazed sites sure qualify – there is very little vegetation height or variety in either habitat structure or plant species across the site. As a result, it’s difficult to see much color or find many different species of plant, insect, or animal. The site tends to be dominated by a few species and doesn’t change much through the seasons or between years.

      Interestingly, I’ve had the same feeling about some prairies that are managed with periodic fire/haying too – they just feel stagnant. They tend to look the same every time I visit. In fact, I was talking to a fellow prairie manager about this not long ago; as he has gotten more experience with grazing in prairies, he has a hard time walking through ungrazed prairies because they just feel dull and uninteresting. Now, I’m not saying (as you know from reading this blog for a long time) that all prairies should be grazed, and many ungrazed prairies sure do look and feel alive and interesting. However, I have seen ungrazed sites that are dominated by grasses and a few dominant wildflowers, have the same vegetation structure throughout, and just feel “blah”. It’s not a scientific measure, just a mental one for me personally. My own personal prairie aesthetic. I walk around an imagine what the prairie would look like if I could bring in some cows or bison to knock some holes in the grass forest and allow some different color and texture to fill those spaces. Or even just a summer fire or SOMETHING different than the same old same old.

      Anyway, it’s clearly subjective, but I do think most people would be able to choose between a couple different prairies in terms of which has more color, movement and noise, and my guess is that the vast majority would agree on their favorite (regardless of whether those people were school kids, lawyers, or prairie ecologists).

      P.S. I agree about being wigged out in big cities. I too like the relative openness and quiet of prairies, but when I sit still and listen, I can always hear things going on – and the longer I sit, the more I hear.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • David says:

        Hi Chris,

        Nicely done on describing your personal prairie aesthetics; thank you. There is, however, one piece missing for me and that is context. I assume the context is Eastern Nebraska?

        My wife and I just recently spent some time backbacking in North Dakota (Maah Daah Hey trail – Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Little Missouri Grasslands. The megafauna was incredible (mostly limited to the Park), big and open expanses, and easy going in the short mixed-grass prairies. We were fortunate to see a lot of bighorn sheep in some of the deeper coulees. Prairie dog towns were a riot! There were some bummers unfortunately – miles after miles of sweet clover (I know your feelings on this), leafy spurge and Poa grass. Some areas got very intense in fracking operations. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some Wisconsin sand 1000’s of feet below me holding open the fracking induced fissures in the shale? All in all it was a beautiful landscape and we enjoyed it for what it was. Okay, I would have loved to be rid of the invasives and some of the out-of-control fracking.

        In contrast, arriving back home in Wisconsin, the tall warm season grasses are king right now in the richer soils; copper, gold and bronze undulating in the breeze, seed heads glowing in the sun, migrating song birds gorging themselves on the seeds. Deeper in the grasses the last forbs of the season are on display with dozens of species of asters and gentians in bloom. As with the North Dakota prairies, I find the WI prairies beautiful and stunning.

        This brings me back to context and why I think it is important. To state the obvious, North Dakota is not Wisconsin and Wisconsin is not Nebraska. So why should anyone think that their respective prairies should be managed the same? We all tend to hover in our camps. Western prairie managers versus eastern, grazing advocates versus non-grazing, Chevy versus Ford, etc. But the reality is (for me) is that all these prairies are beautiful. I am thankful that there are folks throughout this country trying to do what they can to hold on to some of our last pieces of natural heritage.

        David

        • Chris Helzer says:

          David, I agree completely. Prairies don’t have to be the same, and we should celebrate the differences. I hope I didn’t give you a different impression. I still think color, movement and noise apply to all of them, but the way people identify and appreciate color, movement and noise in each prairie can be as individual as each person and prairie.

          Yes, the context matters. But I think there are also things we can learn from looking at the way prairies in other places are managed. I think grazing advocates can learn much from prairies that are never grazed, and vice versa. Some of what can be learned has to do with aesthetics – mainly the realization that prairies don’t have to look like the prairies in our neighborhood.

  10. The Birding Bunch says:

    We are working on helping our little pasture turn into prairie. It used to be mowed for hay; I think the last year was 2011. In an area we have not yet done anything with, patches of Hoary Vervain, purple asters (think New England) and some tiny white aster popped up this year.

    Now that ticks are down and breeding birds gone, I can freely walk through our little prairie in the making. The noise I hear most often is what I call “herding the grasshoppers”. I have not tried identifying them yet, but do see different species. The Western Meadowlarks are still singing. We hope they stay all winter like they did last year. That is a noise I look forward to every morning.

    Do you remember my comment about our trees? My husband has started removing some and it looks like nature is trying to take care of others. On a couple of the smaller trees, you can tell deer were by earlier this year.

    That is a gorgeous photo of the Dickcissel! One of our favorites. We had several breeding pairs here, but they left the end of August.

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