What They Don’t Want You To Know About Prairies – Part 1

As someone who spends a lot of time encouraging people to visit prairies, I need to make a shameful confession.  I haven’t been completely honest with you.  This post is likely to get me in trouble with some of my fellow prairie enthusiasts because I’m about to reveal a secret that has been very tightly held within that community.  I apologize to my colleagues, but if we’re going to lure people into prairies, I feel strongly that we should be honest about the true risks involved. 

Prairies might look inviting, but there are some secret truths you should know before you enter.

Those who are leery of wandering off the safety of paved paths tend to be worried about things like spiders or snakes hiding in the tall grass.  Bah!  Most prairies don’t have either spider or snake species that present any threat at all to humans.  If you do visit a prairie where potentially dangerous spiders or snakes live, it’s good to be educated about them, but they aren’t just lurking around, waiting to attack hapless hikers.  They have better things to do with their lives.

However, there are animals in the prairie that maliciously harass and/or assault humans.  Species that seem to have a vendetta against us for some reason.  None of them are life-threatening, I guess, but they’re certainly annoying and I believe we’ve been covering up their wickedness for too long. 

It’s not fair to invite new people to explore prairies without talking about these species and how to repel their attacks.  Some of you are shouting at your phone or computer right now, saying, “NO CHRIS – DON’T DO IT!  Don’t tell them!!  It’s already hard enough to get people to visit prairies!”

Well, I’m going to do it.  I’m going to start by telling the truth about meadowlarks. If I’m subsequently allowed to keep this blog platform, I’ll try to share information on some of the other secretly dangerous species in future posts.

Meadowlarks are gorgeous birds with distinctive black Vs on their bold yellow breasts.  Their melodic songs are emblematic of prairies and rural landscapes and six states have chosen them as their official state bird.  They nest on the ground and can be found in many prairies year-round.  Insects make up the majority of their diet in the summer and they feed on seeds and fruits during the dormant season. 

Blah blah blah.

The real story about meadowlarks is that they are nasty little buggers that slink around in the grass and stab passing hikers in the ankle with their needle-sharp bills.  Do meadowlarks cause serious injury?  No, but not because they don’t want to.  Does it hurt to be stabbed by a meadowlark when you’re enjoying an otherwise peaceful jaunt in a prairie.  Yes, a little.

I was very fortunate to have gotten this photo of a meadowlark stalking its prey (me) without suffering injury. It goes without saying that I was wearing appropriate safety gear at the time.

Fortunately for all of us, meadowlarks aren’t very strong.  If they were, none of us would be safe.  Often, a meadowlark doesn’t get enough momentum on its attack run to inflict significant pain.  In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stabbed by a meadowlark without knowing it!

However, don’t relax yet.  The initial pain of a meadowlark strike isn’t the real issue, it’s the itchiness that follows.  Scientists are yet to figure out why a stab from a meadowlark bill causes skin irritation, but I’ve come out of prairies with little red bumps on my ankles that itch for DAYS.  My personal hypothesis is that meadowlark bills are coated with goo from the insects they feed on and that the goo reacts with human skin and makes it itch.  I wouldn’t be surprised if meadowlarks select their prey based solely on which bugs make people itch the most! 

Some of you are reading this and thinking, “this can’t be true!”  I can feel your skepticism as I write these words.  Fine, I’ll prove it to you.  Answer this question – why are the backs of meadowlarks brown and streaky-colored and their breasts bright yellow?  I’ll tell you why.  It’s the perfect design for carrying out their spiteful assaults. 

Here’s how it works.  One meadowlark sits on a perch, displaying its showy yellow breast and singing a beautiful song.  (Scientists think only the males sing but since males and females are identical in appearance, I see no reason to believe that.)  When a nearby hiker stops to admire the singing meadowlark, its partner darts stealthily through the grass toward its unsuspecting victim with only its camouflaged back (barely) visible from above. 

Meadowlarks use their brightly colored breasts and melodic songs as a distraction while their partners sneak up behind unsuspecting victims.

It’s diabolical!  It’s also the only logical explanation for the way meadowlarks look.  They have clearly honed their appearance through thousands of years of evolution for this single dastardly purpose.

The good news is that once you know about meadowlarks you can protect yourself.  With a little advance planning, you can still enjoy a tranquil prairie walk despite these malevolent avian threats.  One easy strategy is to never stop moving when you hear a meadowlark singing, especially if you’re standing in grass more than about six inches tall.  Don’t give that meadowlark’s evil partner any cover through which it can sneak up on you!  If you’re in tall grass and hear a meadowlark singing, just keep walking.

In terms of protective gear, the best option, of course, is chainmail socks, but they can be frustratingly hard to find, even in big outdoor recreation stores.  I suspect, however, that as the truth about meadowlarks spreads, the chainmail sock retail market is going to explode.  (If you’re looking for somewhere to invest your money, I’m not saying, I’m just saying, you know?)

If you can’t find chainmail socks, any other kind of physical barrier you can wrap around your ankles is worth trying.  On days when I’ve misplaced or forgotten my own chainmail, I’ve rubber banded layers of leather gloves or thick cardboard to my lower legs.  I’ve also experimented with various styles of camouflaged pants and socks, hoping meadowlarks won’t be able to find their intended target.  So far, they seem too smart for that.

I’m holding out hope that an effective meadowlark repellant will eventually be developed.  I’ve heard rumors that a small group of volunteers at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois have concocted a liquid spray that works pretty well.  So far, however, I’ve not been able to find anyone who will share the recipe with me. 

Well, that’s the truth about meadowlarks.  If this is new information to you, I hope the revelation doesn’t diminish your enthusiasm for prairie exploration.  Don’t let the meadowlarks win!  There are lots of great reasons to wander around a prairie – it’d be a real shame to miss out just because some streaky-backed little bird is out there trying to stab you in the ankle.

Besides, everything we do comes with some risk.  We don’t let a few garden gnomes keep us from picking tomatoes or stay away from grocery stores just because a shelf of canned goods could fall on us at any time…  Many people even use those crazy revolving doors to enter or exit buildings, though I haven’t personally worked up the courage for that just yet.   

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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.

31 thoughts on “What They Don’t Want You To Know About Prairies – Part 1

  1. Living here in Southern half of Illinois, I can’t say Meadowlarks concern me, lol. Here it’s more of an issue with Chiggars & Ticks, however, they can be found most anywhere with taller vegetation not just prairies in our area. Love your articles and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • Yes, Chiggers and Ticks. I never had so many after visiting a prairie in the middle of IL. It was still worth it though. Only a true crazy prairie lover will say this.

  2. As I read the post I could almost hear the theme to “Jaws” in the background. The tension builds as I wonder what on earth this villain could be… and then it’s just a little bird? Monty Python (The Holy Grail) would say, “It’s just a little bunny…” We all know how that worked out! Obviously I do not know prairies. But in spite of this revelation I would absolutely love to visit one and I very much appreciate your heads-up. You are funny and truthful.
    What about gaiters or tall hiking boots?

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Bonnie. Tall boots might work, though if everyone starts wearing those, I worry the meadowlarks might adjust and start aiming higher… They CAN FLY after all! Scary…

      : )

  3. Don’t forget the long lasting, deep psychological damage their endlessly repetitive loud calls can have. Working long hours at Arapahoe Prairie in Arthur county for months on end caused a, mostly, rational deep dislike of the species.

  4. The first time a meadowlark stabbed me in the ankle came as such a rude awakening. Thanks for doing the hard work and putting this information out there, Chris. Be safe.

    • Cheryl, The ones here are mostly westerns, which have the most alluring song (in my opinion). On the other hand, maybe they just WANT US TO THINK they’re westerns. Since they look identical to easterns, I don’t trust anything about them… : )

  5. Thanks for the info and the chuckle!

    Barb Purcell Libertyville, IL

    On Mon, Nov 22, 2021, 11:54 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” As someone who spends a lot of time encouraging > people to visit prairies, I need to make a shameful confession. I haven’t > been completely honest with you. This post is likely to get me in trouble > with some of my fellow prairie enthusiasts because I’m a” >

  6. I’m not sure about meadowlarks… I guess I’ve kept my distance mostly. But I was once attacked from above by a red-winged blackbird. Claws in my scalp and I thought he was going to take a big clump of hair with him. I was just innocently walking past a tall hedge as I recall.

  7. Chris, this does sound a little like the ‘Jackalope’ reports we would tell visitors in the south central arizona Sonoran deserts. That really got the attention from the New Yorkers, and of course was a lot of fun telling the stories!

    Nice try Chris. mark

    On Mon, Nov 22, 2021 at 11:53 AM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” As someone who spends a lot of time encouraging > people to visit prairies, I need to make a shameful confession. I haven’t > been completely honest with you. This post is likely to get me in trouble > with some of my fellow prairie enthusiasts because I’m a” >

  8. I’ve lived on the Alberta Prairie most of my life. I’ve heard meadowlarks many times – but never been attacked when walking through the grasslands. Perhaps Meadowlarks become ‘polite Canadians’ when they cross the border from the US…

  9. Thank you for the smile!
    Walked through prairies as a kid with dogs or on horseback, when there were still Meadowlarks in Dallas, eons ago. Observed their very cool nests, broken wing antics to lead us away, but was never stalked by one. Interesting.
    Guess the city dwellers were different.
    Now we want them back.

  10. WOW!! SHUDDER!! Now I have to begin worrying about April fools day. Not to mention a first visit of my 25 acre prairie development, in June, by a local bird club! Do I just stock up on band aids?
    Harold

  11. Hilarious! But this is probably explains why the plains indians used their feathers to construct such beautiful baskets.

  12. There may be secrets underlying Meadowlark Lemon’s name that no one ever suspected. If Muhammad Ali’s style was to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, who’s to say who really trained that great basketball player? After all, he was born in the Eastern Meadowlark’s territory…

  13. while snakes and spiders, and the fearsome Land Crab may not be present on the prairies, wading through heavy grass is tiring.

    And while people may not be afraid of slitheries and creepie crawlies, they may be daunted by trackless and “featureless” prairie.

    There’s something to be said for mowing paths. This also has the advantage of flattening the ankle spraining mounds of pocket gophers, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs. I mowed a 4 mile serpentine path on 16 acres of my pasture for several years. It would take about an hour with my tractor and 6′ bush mower.

    And it would give you a chance at spotting the nefarious meadowlarks.

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