By: Woody Woodruff
Winter can seem lifeless and dull without the green plants growing, the song birds singing and the animals chasing each other in a daily pattern of competition, communication, and cooperation. During cold weather I spend most of my spare time gathering firewood for the wood stove in a seasonal tradition of staying warm. Staying warm is a survival necessity in the Midwest, and the fate of many species that live in this region is tied to the need to stay warm.
A couple of weekends ago, I spent time watching three pairs of northern harriers circling my prairie and a farm field over and over. I used to think this type of sighting was something out of the ordinary. Occasionally I would see either the blueish-grey and white male or the brown and white female hawk in a solitary glide over an open field or along a roadside ditch as I drove from town to town. I was somewhat amazed at the fact that here were six birds, three males and three females, circling a snow covered, 100-acre field for days on end. Why so many raptors in one small place? The answer has become obvious to me – habitat. Habitat is food and shelter and winter survival. On a cold winter’s day with six inches of snow, finding something to eat for a hawk can be a challenge. It is the same for field mice. A field of cover crop residue or a meadow of prairie grass is a good place to raise a litter. The mice can stay relatively warm with the groundcover insulating their dens. And the needed food is close at hand from seeds that litter the ground. So why am I not over run with a plague of mice? Good winter habitats for the mice attract the hawks, fox, and owls looking for a good winter meal.
I have always believed that land management is an art as well as a science. It might sound funny that I include art. I feel there must be an understanding of the study of ecology and the components of a dynamic habitat, but one also needs the ability to visualize what that habitat will look like in the end. As one who used to do a lot of hunting, I can tell you that the northern harrier is using this art of visualization to find the mice. When I started to create different types of habitat at this farm I had a picture in mind of what the end product should look like. In my rooky years I was focused on creating habitat for species that interest me. In the tradition of keeping warm with wood, I always left a big pile of brush at each cutting site for rabbits to find safety. The number of rabbits never seemed to increase, but I at least had rabbits. In those days, if I saw a rabbit it would be a loner at the edge of a field foraging for food. It seemed that nothing could be done to give this rabbit a chance to survive the bareness of winter. But as I applied more to the picture, my vision of the end product began to change. And as the paint has been applied to the canvas, the number of living creatures who inhabit the picture’s framed boundaries have grown.
As I reflect on that now, it is easy for me to see that the balance between principles in science and art can be limited by personal experiences. My habitat exposure grew with acceleration during my ecosystem restoration years at Mud Prairie. I had just finished a seven-year project researching the effects that conservation’s best management practices have on water quality. When that research project ended I decided to start my own business; Mud Prairie Ecosystem Restoration. I collected and grew prairie grasses and forbs for seed and worked with private landowners who were re-establishing prairies of their own. My thought at the time was that I would use part of this farm as a showcase. I studied prairie ecosystems restoration and found a mentor in Bill McLean, a Prairie Restoration Specialist. Having Bill as a mentor helped me to make fewer mistakes, but he was no substitute for personal experience. I could envision what a healthy prairie would look like from the vast number of plants that grew within its boundaries. But the observations I made from the first planting day forward opened my eyes to a different way of living. Balancing knowledge with vision through constant contemplation helped me to make better decisions today. In reflection, I kept observations focused on the big picture. The rest of this article is about those observations I made at Mud Prairie.
When I began my restoration, all of the 50-plus acres of land being restored to prairie had been tilled, row-cropped farm ground. A prairie had existed there, but many decades of tillage had passed. I planted eight different prairie grasses and 32 different flowering forbs within the first few years. Lesson number one; a large change to a system is followed by a few years of chaos. At first, all I saw were weeds that only fueled a fire. My neighbors must have felt that I had fallen off the deep end with all those weeds out in my field. I quickly learned that habitats such as prairie are not a crop. It is an ecosystem of multiple internal systems that must evolve – and that takes time. In my role as steward, I can only help in the process but even that requires constant observation and adaptation of the changes taking place. Over time a balance starts to evolve. This balance in the bacteria, fungi, plant, insect, and animal kingdoms helps to safeguard against that chaos happening again. If you fine tune your skills of observation and pay close attention to the signs that show up in front of you, you can see that all these kingdoms communicate with each other. This is when my eyes became liberated, allowing me to see that I am only a part of something living that is truly larger and more complex than just being human.
Mud Prairie today is a combination of different plots of land from 2-acre fields to 30-acre fields. Most of the prairie is considered a tall grass prairie. The vegetation is dense and mostly made up of tall grass and forbs as the name implies. Some of the prairie is considered a small grass prairie which is less dense, and the grasses and forbs are of a smaller nature. Some of this restoration is an Oak Savanna with a combination of both types of prairies and a few spaced fire tolerant oak trees mixed in.
Over time, I observed increasing numbers and diversity of living things as the different ecosystems developed. The mice, snakes, and grass birds favor the dense tall grass prairie for its impenetrable cover of protection. The rabbits, quail, and pheasant like the short grass prairie for its maneuverability in eluding predators. And the savanna offers raptors a vantage point in monitoring animal traffic. Add healthy wetlands for clean water and woodlands for nesting and food to the habitat and you end up with a vibrant community. I wonder if the message of this community is that we should not focus on just one thing. Not only did I start seeing numbers go up, I started seeing animals, birds and insects that I had never seen before. And now I am seeing habitat on my cropland in the form of cover crop residue during the winter months. Now I know why this farm had six northern harriers circling for food while an area ten times the size between one town and the next might only have one hungry-looking bird. It is one thing to know what makes up a healthy habitat. It is another thing to know what that habitat should look like. What’s needed is to slow down and reflect on what you are doing. Try and balance what you need with what everything else needs to survive. Their extinction as well as ours could hang on that balance.