A Prairie Ecologist Holiday Reading List

If you’re like me, this period just before and after the New Year provides a good opportunity to enjoy some quality reading time.  Maybe you’ve already got a stack of books or list or blog posts you’re waiting to read.  If not, maybe I can help.

Here is a selection of some of my favorite blog posts from The Prairie Ecologist dating back to 2010.  If you’ve only recently found this blog, some of the older posts may be brand new to you.  If you’ve been here since the beginning, maybe these will stoke some old ideas or just be fun to read again.

For your convenience, I’ve split these into five categories: Species profiles, conservation science, prairie management, prairie restoration, and humor/photography.  If you have a favorite post that didn’t make the list, you can add it by leaving a comment below with the name or link to the post.

Species Profiles

1. One of the most viewed posts I’ve ever written was about the mutualistic relationship between the yucca plant and the yucca moth.  It is a fascinating story of interdependence in nature.

The relationship between the yucca moth and yucca plant is one of the most fascinating in nature.

The relationship between the yucca moth and yucca plant is one of the most fascinating in nature.

2.  The camouflaged inchworm is my favorite insect.  How could you not love an inchworm that camouflages itself with bits of the flowers it eats?

3. Knowing how many crazy things have to happen to pollinate milkweed flowers makes you wonder how it ever happens at all.

4. The sora is a bird that has quite a reputation for being able to hide in wetlands.  I found out one big reason it might be so good at that.

5. The lower portions of thistle flowers seem to be death traps for many insects, even while the upper portions provide a bonanza of nectar and pollen.

Conservation Science

1. Resilience is a word that gets a lot of play these days – in multiple settings.  Ecologically speaking, though, resilience may be the key to survival for ecosystems such as prairies.  Read about what defines ecological resilience and how it applies to grasslands.

2. Invasive plants are a major challenge for prairie ecologists.  We can’t stop them all, so we have to prioritize.  One big step in that process is coming to terms with the idea that not all exotic plants are invasive.

3. Conservationists are always looking for indicator species that can help us decide how our conservation work is going.  Unfortunately, I think we rely much too heavily on birds as indicators because they are really not that useful in that role – at least in prairies.

4. Prescribed fire is a very important tool for prairie conservation (as well as the conservation of many other ecosystems).  However, with all the smoke created by prairie fires, are we causing more problems than we’re solving – especially related to global warming?  When you look at the facts, the answer seems to be no.

Prescribed fire is an important prairie management tool and shouldn't be blamed for contributing to climate change.

Prescribed fire is an important prairie management tool and shouldn’t be blamed for contributing to climate change.

Prairie Management

1. Keeping prairies healthy and diverse relies on diverse management that maintains habitat and growing conditions for as many species as possible.  Unfortunately, our human nature tends to work against us sometimes, including a tendency to manage for what I call “Calendar Prairies.” 

2. Many management strategies that work well in large prairies just aren’t feasible in smaller ones.  How should we manage those small prairies?

3. Here is some fascinating evidence of the interconnectedness of prairies and impacts from management treatments that link fire, cattle, mice, and prairie clover.

Prairie Restoration

1. Too many people think of prairie restoration as recreating something that used to exist – like restoring an historic building to help preserve the past.  There is certainly value in that, but we also have the opportunity to create prairie in a way that rebuilds the ecological function of grassland landscapes.

2. Prior to writing the above essay, I laid out a more specific set of ideas about how prairie restoration can help us rebuild fragmented landscapes.

Humor/Photography

1. Many of my attempts to photograph wildlife turn out to be relatively humorous adventures.  My attempt to photograph prairie dogs not far from my house, for example, turned out to be kind of a fiasco.  A second attempt at a different location resulted in better photographs, but was also good fodder for some laughs.

2. A porcupine sitting in a short tree in beautiful evening light seems like a prime opportunity for some great photographs.  But only if the porcupine is cooperative

3. In one post, I shared some information about one of my favorite techniques for photographing small creatures in my backyard.  It requires one very important piece of equipment: a wheelbarrow.  It’s a good thing my neighbors can’t see me (I hope!).

4. We have lots of river otter use in our Platte River Prairies.  Guess how many I’ve seen?

A Prairie Ecologist’s Perspective on Arbor Day

Today is National Arbor Day – a holiday initiated by J. Sterling Morton right here in my home state of Nebraska.  The idea of Arbor Day is to encourage the planting of trees. However, as a prairie ecologist, I spend considerable effort trying to keep trees from taking over the prairies I manage and/or care about.

As a result, I have some mixed feelings about Arbor Day.

A cottonwood tree in a Platte River prairie at sunrise.

A cottonwood tree in a Platte River prairie at sunrise.  Beautiful, but not without some impacts on prairie ecology.

I don’t harbor any particular enmity toward trees themselves.  In fact, some of my favorite places in Nebraska have fantastic woodlands, including The Nature Conservancy’s Rulo Bluffs Preserve and Niobrara Valley Preserve.  I also really like the trees in my yard – especially the one that produces a big crop of pie cherries each year!

On the other hand, I don’t hesitate to use all necessary force to remove trees from grasslands.  Why?  There are numerous reasons.  Here are a few examples:

– The shade from trees changes the microclimate underneath them, suppressing the growth of many prairie plants and favoring others, including some nasty invasive species that can then spread into prairies.

– Trees completely change the habitat structure of a prairie, making it unsuitable for many wildlife species that rely on wide open habitats.  As trees and shrubs increase in density, prairie animals are forced out.

– Many grassland birds avoid nesting near woodlands, or even lone trees.  There are multiple reasons for this, but a big one is the abundance of predators that hang around in and under trees.  A line of trees along the edge of a prairie creates a wide “dead zone” within which very few prairie bird species will nest.  In landscapes where most prairies are already small and fragmented, the loss of that additional habitat can have serious consequences.

– Once trees and shrubs become established, they tend to promote the establishment of more.  Some spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and all of them are good perch sites for birds, which drop seeds out both ends onto the ground beneath the trees.  Once on the ground, shade from the trees reduces the vigor of prairie plants and helps woody seedlings thrive.  Dense tree and shrub patches can also become fire proof because their shade prevents grass growth beneath them – and it’s grass that carries fire.

Burning prairie can suppress the encroachment of trees, including eastern red cedars.

Burning prairie can suppress the encroachment of trees, including eastern red cedars.

Woody plants, including both trees and shrubs, have always been good at invading prairies but, historically, fires and dry climate helped keep them from becoming established across most of the grasslands of the Great Plains.  Today, fire suppression, landscape fragmentation, and even changing levels of carbon and nitrogen in the atmosphere are giving trees the upper hand.  As a result, my staff and I (ok, mostly my staff nowadays) spend an inordinate amount of time cutting trees down, burning grasslands to kill trees, and treating trees with herbicides.

Can you see why a holiday that promotes tree planting – especially in a grassland state like Nebraska – might make me a little nervous?  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with planting trees, but the kind of trees being planted and the location they’re planted in makes all the difference in the world.

If you live near a prairie, here are two important tips to consider as you prepare to celebrate National Arbor Day by planting a tree (or lots of trees).

1. Do some research on the tree species you plant.  Some species, such as Siberian elm, Russian olive, Autumn olive, and other non-native trees and shrubs can be very invasive in grasslands, quickly spreading by seed far from the parent tree.  A quick internet search using the name of the tree and the word “invasive” will tell you whether or not the tree species you’re considering is one that could cause problems.  However, even many native trees can spread into grasslands, so that leads us to…

2. Carefully consider the location of your proposed tree planting.  As mentioned earlier, even a single tree, let alone a row along the edge or (heaven forbid!) through the middle of a prairie can wreak havoc on grassland birds and other species.  Prairies and their plant and animal inhabitants thrive in wide open habitats; adding trees to those habitats can really mess things up.

By all means, plant trees in your yard, around your farmstead, or in a local park or school.  Trees provide shade, habitat, food, and aesthetic beauty to cities, towns, and acreages, and you should feel good about contributing toward those things.  However, as you celebrate Arbor Day, please don’t forget about prairies, the plants and wildlife that rely on them, and the hard-working prairie ecologists and land managers trying to conserve them.

So,

Happy Arbor Day!

(please celebrate wisely)