Through The Eyes of Others

If you’re a fan of prairies, you were probably first drawn to them by either plants or birds.  There are exceptions, of course, but those seem to be the two most common paths.  For me, it was both.  I discovered prairies first as an underappreciated community of plants and then dove into research on grassland birds during graduate school.  Regardless of our initial paths, each of us looks at prairies from our own perspective, influenced by the species and groups of organisms we know and like best. 

Whichever organisms happen to be your favorites, your appreciation of them creates the lens through which you view prairies.  When you meander through a prairie, you note the species of plants, birds, butterflies, or other organisms you like best, admiring both their beauty and their life strategies.  You pay attention to how many there are, how that number changes over time, and whether the available habitat/growing conditions are favorable for them.  Most importantly, you evaluate the quality of a prairie and its management based on those observations.  You’re not unique – we all do this.

Unfortunately, looking at a prairie from the perspective of any particular group of plants or animals gives us a limited and incomplete view.  A prairie might be admired by a birder for its diversity of grassland bird species but scorned by a botanist because it is missing some rare or emblematic plant species.  Alternatively, that botanist’s favorite prairie might have little attraction for a birder because their favorite birds are absent.  If you ask the botanist and birder for their advice on how to manage those prairies, you’ll likely get different answers.

Greene Prairie at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum is a gorgeous site and a terrific place to find plant diversity, including a number of at-risk species. However, its size and wooded border make it unlikely to be used by some grassland nesting birds.
Upland sandpipers are common in large prairies, especially those with fairly short vegetation structure in the spring. They are not likely to show up in the aforementioned Greene Prairie.

The point here isn’t that either the birder or botanist is right or wrong.  It’s that each of us sees prairies from a biased perspective that’s built upon what we know and appreciate about prairie organisms.  That biased perspective doesn’t make any of us bad people, just inevitably limited in our understanding and ability to see the whole picture.

When we come together to assess or discuss prairies and prairie management, our personal lenses become quickly apparent.  Some of us evaluate prairies based on their plant communities, while others focus on habitat structure.  Butterfly enthusiasts are often apprehensive about the use of fire because of its impact on caterpillars.  Fans of bees point out that summer haying creates a barren wasteland for pollinators.  Herpetologists grumble about the scarcity of open sunny places for snakes and other animals to bask.  And so on.

In central Nebraska Sandhill prairies, it’s possible to find both lesser earless lizards (top) and prairie skinks (bottom) but they are unlikely to be seen near each other because they have very different habitat preferences. Management that consistently favors one might drive the other to local extinction.

I bring all of this up to make two main points. The first is that because none of us understand the full spectrum of prairie organisms and interactions, we need to interact with and listen to people who have expertise we don’t.  Taking the habitat needs of many species into consideration will make our prairie management and conservation work better informed and more effective.  On one hand, attempting to manage a prairie committee can be disastrous because any action will have a negative impact on someone’s favorite species.  On the other, we need to understand as many of those conflicts and impacts as we can so our management decisions are well-informed.  We don’t need to make sure every action benefits all species and harms none.  We just need to consider all the impacts we can and do our best to balance them across time and space.

If botanists only talk to botanists, and birders only talk to birders, neither will learn much.  Wouldn’t it be great if every discussion about prairie conservation and management included voices that represented a wide range of taxonomic knowledge?  It might mean that some planning sessions would become long, challenging, and even frustrating.  Fine.  Prairies are complex – decision making should be too.  If we do it well, we’ll all learn from each other and make better choices as a result. Ideally, if there are disagreements about how to proceed, the parties would agree to try one approach but work together to evaluate the results and adapt as necessary.

Second, I encourage every prairie ecologist, naturalist, or manager to continually broaden your range of expertise.  Be intentional in your efforts to learn about species you don’t know much about.  When you see an organism you’re not familiar with, do your best to identify it, but then also investigate its life strategies.  If you attend a conference (virtually or otherwise) don’t attend only those sessions that deepen your knowledge about taxa you’re already familiar with.  Dip into a presentation on planthoppers, fungi, or lizards – or whatever would add to your perspective.  Even a brief and shallow exposure can help you understand more about what a group of organisms might need from a prairie and how those requirements might overlap or conflict with those of other species.

I first learned of the existence of this derbid planthopper species during my square meter photography project in 2018. I have absolutely no idea what it wants/needs for prairie habitat, but I hope to find out. Then I can add it to my list of perspectives through which I try to look at prairies!

I can guarantee that you’ll find fascinating life history stories in any group of species you investigate.  That’s certainly been my experience, and I can also testify that prairies get more fascinating every time I learn something about a new species or group.  I’m far from having a comprehensive understanding of prairie ecology, but I definitely have a much broader grasp of prairie communities than I did five or ten years ago.  Because of that, when I look at a prairie, I’m seeing it through the ‘eyes’ of many more species than I used to.  That makes me a better ecologist and land manager, but it also makes prairies more fun to explore and contemplate.

If you don’t already do this, the next time you visit your favorite prairie, try assessing it from the perspective of a species you don’t normally think about.  Consider how a bumble bee, pocket mouse, or prairie clover would view the habitat, competitive environment, and/or growing conditions.  Then repeat that process with organisms from other taxonomic groups.  If you’re like me, you’ll get sucked into a captivating and thought-provoking journey that will leave you both inspired and overwhelmed.  Could there be a more fitting emotional reaction to prairies than that?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

21 thoughts on “Through The Eyes of Others

  1. Thank you for your call for the sharing of knowledge and the consideration of a wider perspective. And. always, thank you for the photographs.

  2. Pingback: Through The Eyes of Others — The Prairie Ecologist

  3. Beautifully crafted post Chris. Your message of inviting, and taking in account all perspectives is an idea that extends to larger society as a whole. We can make the world better with exponentially more altruism.

  4. Thanks for your blog Chris! I really appreciate it and look forward to reading it.

    I would say we also need to look at the prairie through the eyes of one other species…humans. And, as we all know, that species has many different “lenses” through which it sees, some that benefit prairies but many (most?) that do not. Taking multiple human perspectives into account as we walk the prairie, including those from groups we often don’t seek out or hear from in the conservation world, may help us develop better ways to preserve and restore these ecosystems and build an essential stewardship ethic within our communities.

  5. This is excellent perspective, Chris, and such a good reminder to really seek out what we don’t already understand, which enriches disciplines in which we consider ourselves well-versed. I appreciate the notion that we can’t assume high plant diversity is the answer to all prairie ecosystem needs. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  6. As it was explained to me at the last Grassland Restoration Conference, Greene Prairie is actually a reconstruction on previously farmed land. It is by far the best prairie reconstruction I have ever seen.

  7. I understand that this is not easy to achieve in today’s world, unfortunately, but as I see it the more complete a prairie/grassland ecosystem is the less active (human) management is necessary. So, that should be the main goal really; even if it’s extremely difficult in practice because of peoples land use.

    In addition I believe it’s vital to have the whole range of habitats from one extreme (barren soil) to the other (completely untouched by us).
    That way there will always be somewhere suitable for most species; even if we don’t really understand all about their needs and ecology.

  8. A bit like being a good citizen in a democracy, this prairie restoration and management business, isn’t it? “… we need to interact with and listen to people who have expertise we don’t.” Thank you for a fantastic post.

  9. So true Chris. Looking at a healthy prairie you see many things. Over the years I marvel at the complexity of the prairie above and below ground and how it has evolved over time. It is great that its complexity is being studied and appreciated.

  10. my outlook is pretty broad as is.
    Maybe too broad.
    I own land that is prairie reconstruction, savanna, woodland and forest.
    A little bit of alot of different stuff.
    dealing with prairie plants is easy compared to woodland stuff. Alot more knowledge and research available for prairie enviroments.
    And the plants, lots of woodland plants require 2-3 years to germinate and 4-5 to bloom. And its not they are like large imposing Compass plants but small diminutive stuff like trillium. And I won’t even mention how long it takes to get a mature statuesque Oak.


  11. I enjoy getting out with people of various specialties, not only because I can pepper the plant experts with questions. I’ll notice tiny insects and miss the snake entirely. We say we train our eyes, but really train our brains at pattern recognition. None of us can do it all, so get out there with a group and start looking at what they’re seeing. We need to tie it all together.

  12. Well spoken, Chris. This inclusive perspective can be broadened to other habitats and especially to the edge areas between them.

  13. I couldn’t agree with you more- so well stated!! But I think we’ve “all drank that coolaid”. With so little prairie remaining, we need to continue the work in reaching out (on a large scale) to help those who don’t recognize the/ any value of prairies. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.


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