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.   

I Otter Be Happy But I’m Not

Last month, I got a call from a neighbor who lives next to one of our Platte River Prairies.  I was a little nervous when I picked up the phone because I never know how a neighbor call will go.  Sometimes they’re just calling to shoot the breeze or see how much rain we got.  But other times, they’re calling to let us know that one of “our” hunters shot a deer on the wrong side of a fence or that the cows from our pasture are eating their corn.  This time, it was even worse.  He was calling to tell me he’d just seen a river otter.

I should have been excited to hear about a sighting of one of those cute, playful animals right next to our property, especially because they are considered an at-risk species in Nebraska.  I should have been gratified that our neighbor was excited enough to call me and celebrate it.  Well, I wasn’t.

I don’t have anything against river otters.  In fact, I think they’re great.  But I’ve never seen one in the wild in Nebraska, let alone on one of our properties.  Not one.  Not that I care, of course.

This restored wetland hosts numerous otters, as testified to by scat, tracks, and occasional dead fish.  See any otters in this picture?  Me neither.

This restored wetland hosts numerous otters, as testified to by scat, tracks, and occasional dead fish. See any otters in this picture? Me neither.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

My failure to see an otter comes despite the fact that we own and manage a wetland that has some of the highest otter use in Nebraska.  Several years ago, we even housed a research technician on our property who was trapping and implanting radio transmitters in otters.  The researchers chose our site because of all the otter scat and tracks they found there.  I’ve seen the scat.  I’ve seen the tracks.  I’ve even seen piles of dead fish scattered around holes in the ice where otters have been fishing during the winter.  What I haven’t seen?  One single stupid otter.

This fuzzy little jumping spider is very cute, and I photographed it at the wetland where the otters often hang out.  But it's not an otter.

This fuzzy little jumping spider was very cute, and I photographed it at the wetland where the otters often hang out. But it’s not an otter.

I spend a lot of time on our properties.  I mean a lot.  And the stream/wetland habitat where the otters hang out is also one of my favorite places to hang out.  We should be buddies!  The otters and I should be waving at each other every day on the way to work, exchanging pleasantries like good neighbors and friends do.  Instead, they’re avoiding me like the plague.

This tiny soft-shelled turtle is very cute, and also lives at the otter wetland.  However, it is not an otter either.

This tiny soft-shelled turtle is very cute, and lives at the wetland with the otters. It is, however, not an otter.

Quite a few of the technicians that have worked for me over the years have seen otters.  Even some of our volunteers have seen otters.  Now the neighbor right next door has seen one too.  The researcher tracked the otters up and down the river, and located their signal on our wetland countless times.  He even showed me video clips of entire otter families tripping along the bank of the river and playing cute otter games in the water.  I went out with him to check his traps, figuring it’d be a good way to see an otter.  When I went out, he caught beavers, raccoons, and a skunk.  Not that it’s a big deal either way.

Kent Fricke caught lots of otters and implanted radio transmitters in them.  When I went out with him to check traps, he just caught other animals like this big beaver.

Kent Fricke caught lots of otters and implanted radio transmitters in them. When I went out with him to check traps, all he caught was other animals like this big beaver.

I get to see other animals on our properties, and they don’t seem to mind me watching them.  Notwithstanding my rocky relationship with prairie dogs (see my earlier post and a follow up to it), I’ve had pretty good luck with most kinds of creatures, including fairly reclusive ones such as Franklin’s ground squirrels, smooth green snakes, woodcock, and whooping cranes.  Often, animals even pose pretty nicely for me while I photograph them.  SO WHY DON’T OTTERS LIKE ME?

Maybe I’m trying too hard.  Maybe if I stay away from their favorite wetland for a while, they’ll stop hiding from me every time I show up (the little dirtbags).  Maybe I’ll spend more time with other animals for a while – animals that are just as cute as otters, but that have more generous dispositions.  Maybe if I do all those things, I’ll eventually get to see a real life otter on one of our properties.  Someday.

Not that I care.