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.

Our Family Spiders

We’re pretty tolerant of spiders in our house. In fact, we’re downright welcoming. At any one time, there are usually a couple house spider funnel webs in the corners of our windows, helping to catch the flies that frequent those same spots. The webs made by the cellar spiders down in the basement sometimes get in the way, but I don’t really hold that against them.

The funnel web of a house spider in our living room yesterday.

Our family favorites are the jumping spiders. I’m a fan of them for lots of reasons, starting with their big eyes and (often) fuzzy teddy bear bodies. In addition, they’re just mesmerizing to watch. Unlike web weaving spiders, jumpers roam around in search of prey, so they put on a good show. The one currently living with us likes to move between the big south facing windows of our dining room and living room several times a day.

Here’s our current jumping spider, which hangs out on our living room and dining room windows.

When I work at the dining room table, I enjoy being able to keep an eye on the jumping spider as it patrols its territory. Now that we’ve had some hard freezes, the number of insects hanging out in the windows has really dropped off, but there are still a few flies around. The other day, I watched it stalk a lady bug. When it got about an inch away, it pounced, but then immediately backed off. I’m not sure if it was the beetle’s hard shell or bad taste that repelled the spider, but whatever it was worked very well for the lady bug.

A fly carcass left by the jumping spider in our dining room window.
Here’s the little jumper hiding in the corner of the window while I tried to act like I wasn’t interested in photographing it.

I recognize that spiders aren’t the world’s most popular group of organisms. Many of us have a kind of instinctive reaction when we see a spider. It’s something you can train yourself out of, but there’s not much incentive for most people to do that. The deluge of misinformation about spiders floating around certainly doesn’t help.

The vast majority of spiders aren’t at all dangerous to people. Those that can be dangerous (black widows and brown recluses, for example) are not hanging around waiting for an opportunity to attack you. It’s good to know who they are so you can be smart around them, but it’s also important to recognize that all the other spiders you see are harmless.

One of my biggest pet peeves is how often people claim to have ‘spider bites’, which – as far as I can tell – include any small red, itchy, or painful bump someone might find on their body. Hey everyone, you’re not getting bit by spiders. You’re just not. That’s not how they work. If you got bit by a black widow or brown recluse, you’d know it. Those other ‘bites’ are ingrown hairs, pimples, insect bites, or something else besides a spider bite. Good grief. Seriously.

Here’s the jumping spider on the glass, hunting for flies.

If you’re not a spider fan, I’m not here to judge you. I would encourage you to learn a little more about them just so you don’t live in constant fear of something that’s not worth worrying about. If, on the other hand, you’re like our family, and are comfortable with them, spiders can be pretty amazing to have around the house.

Regardless of whether you like them or not, you have to admit spiders are fascinating. Just the fact that they walk around using hydraulic pressure to move their legs (!!) should be enough to get your attention. The next time you watch the jumping spider on your window sneak up to a fly and pounce on it, remember that its jump is powered by fluid being pumped into its legs very quickly. How can you not be in awe of a creature like that?

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.