North American Prairies

Prairie meadow with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, Wisconsin

Pronghorn, California

Bison, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

The prairies of North America, unique to the continent’s central region, have intrigued and enlightened residents for centuries. Born and raised in America’s prairies, I continue to take great pleasure in our grassland expanses.

 

The history of the continent’s grasslands has been interesting, you can read about it below in the two links. Today we are in the fortunate period of a resurgence of prairie restoration.

 

Carrizo Plains, California

 

Red-winged blackbird, Horicon Marsh, WI

 

With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.

 

Prairie Ecology and History

 

Prairie Wikipedia

 

The deep roots of the grasses absorb rain and nutrients, preventing erosion and run-off. The grassland absorption of nutrients and minerals creates rich soil and productive farming. The grasses and forbs also capture carbon, an important process with the current threat of global warming.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

Not all prairies are the same; some are wet, some are dry. The grasses are not all the same, either: tall, short, or a mixture of the two, depending on precipitation.

 

Colorado

 

In addition to the Great Plains of North America in the center of the continent, there are also prairie habitats in several parts of the U.S. and southern Canada. See map below.

 

Savannah habitats can include shallow waterways like marshes or vernal pools; some have occasional buttes. Trees are typically rare, except for what might grow alongside rivers.

 

With the absence of trees and mountain formations, unobstructed gale-force winds are common.

 

If you’ve ever been in grassland regions, you know about the storms. Sometimes they are glorious. Purple-black clouds roil for hours until at last the skies ominously open, bringing rain that actually smells sweet. Dramatic lightning and booming thunder.

 

Sometimes, admittedly, it’s not so glorious…it’s terrifying. This is where tornadoes occur.

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.

Pronghorn, male, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

 

Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.

 

California Quail

In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.

 

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

 

One spring we went to a prairie preserve in Texas in search of the rare prairie chickens native to these grasslands. We were unable to find the prairie chickens, they are now extremely rare, but we were treated to many prairie sights.

Texas

Several male dickcissels, seed-eating songbirds who occupy the prairie grasses, made their way to the top of the grass to vie for female partners.

Prairie Dickcissel, Attwater Preserve, Texas

Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.

Texas prairie wildflowers

Western Meadowlark, Carrizo Plains, California

 

We tend to visit oceans, coasts, mountains, or cities when we travel, and the Plains (the word means ordinary) are not attractive to many folks.

 

But I love the flat grasslands redolent with sweet-smelling grasses and fresh air. Skies are open, grass is golden. Bison and elk graze without concern, meadow birds rest on fence posts or disappear in the tall grass.

 

Thanks for joining me.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

For early American prairie experiences, read Willa Cather. 

 

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Image result for north american prairie map

North American Prairie Map. Courtesy rediscovertheprairie.org.

 

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90 thoughts on “North American Prairies

  1. Great photos of some of the wildlife in the prairie lands. My dad told me that when he was in his late teens before WWII, he maintained radio towers in Kansas. He said he had to out run the buffalos between towers.

  2. Always a joy to join you on your travels and investigations, Jet! I take so much for granted – including the prairie – until I venture into it with you. I loved Haukos’ article on the Tallgrass Prairie, too. Thank you for including it. I can’t wait until you visit my new area in Georgia and open it up for me as well!

    • I’m really glad you had the chance to read Jill Haukos’ article, Nan. It was a lot of info to cover in a short space, and she did a really good job of laying out the details. Good photos too. I am looking so forward to adventuring in Georgia with you, dear Nan. I hope we can find an armadillo. And a manatee would be pretty cool too. Many thanks, as always.

  3. The flatlands are often overlooked, and potential visitors are missing a diverse treat – as your post shows! Loved this one, particularly as we are heading east next week, and looking forward to seeing the vast expanses beyond the mountains. Alberta has had an active storm and tornado season this summer, and we’re hoping to view storms along the way – from a comforting distance.
    Thanks, Jet, wonderful words and photographs from you and Athena!

    • I’m delighted to have put out this prairie post before you head for the prairies next week, pc. I know you have travelled the prairies of Canada many times, and you and I are both agreed on how marvelous they are. We like our mountains, but the prairies are very special too. I look so forward to seeing your photos and posts, as I always do. My warmest thanks for today’s visit, and bon voyage to you and Mrs. PC. You two sure get around…how wonderful!

  4. You and Athena have made the Plains look anything but plain. What wonderful photographs and such a wide variety of creatures. I find it very difficult to imagine the expanse of areas like this in the US. I love the sense of space I find on our local uplands but Wales is a very small country, as is the UK in comparison to the US and the mass of land you have there is . . . well, I just can’t find the words to try and express what I imagine would be my awe at it all. Thanks for the visit to such a landscape and its inhabitants 🙂

    • You bring up a great point, Alastair. The extensive open space of the Plains are difficult to grasp if you haven’t seen them. The land just goes on and on and on, seems like forever. One day in Colorado we went on an Auto Tour and we had brought lunch and beverages and we were on it for the whole day. We drove for hours, and miles and miles and miles, and we only saw one other vehicle the whole day! I’m really glad you enjoyed this vicarious visit to the prairies, thanks so much for your visit, as always.

  5. So glad to hear that people are taking things seriously and allowing the prairies to return to their natural states. Ecosystems are so delicately balanced.

  6. Wonderful post and the photographs, Jet. Sorry you didn’t get to see the wild chickens. I have never heard of them! Prairies are beautiful and diverse in species. Looking at the storm picture I thought of my favorite book The Big Sky.

  7. I’ve never seen a large prairie in person, so I enjoyed this post very much, Jet/Athena. Someday perhaps I’ll visit one rather than fly over it.
    I seem to read more these days about prairie grassland habitat restoration, but with oil and gas below sage prairies, those are sadly under attack. Oh, if only I had a magic wand! 😉

    • I am so happy to have vicariously brought you out to the prairie, Eliza. And you’re right, the oil and gas industries do pose a threat…I’m with you on the magic wand, my friend. Many thanks.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the prairie post, Miguel, and how wonderful that it reminded you of your Wyoming visit. I hope you continue enjoying the wide open spaces. Thanks very much.

  8. I lived for about a year in Kansas City Missouri and my roommate’s boyfriend used to love to go to the stock car races out near Topeka – it was lovely in the spring but a couple of times we had to outrun twisters on our way back home. There’s nothing quite like the sky before a twister. Course we were young and dumb! Love those black-eyed susans.

    • Love-love-loved this account of the stock car races and outrunning the twisters, Jan. The thrills we find in the flatlands. Warm thanks and a big smile on my face. 🙂

    • For those of us who have lived out in the open spaces, we do have a warm place in our hearts for the prairie landscapes. I really liked your comment, Frank, thank you.

  9. I love the grasslands, too, and these are lovely photos as usual. It must have been quite something when the prairie was covered with grass high enough to hide an NBA basketball player. In the Little House books, Ma and Pa told the girls not to go out as they might be lost. That would certainly be liable to happen with grass that tall. I understand the University of Nebraska has an area of tall grass. I’d love to see it some day.

    janet

    • I didn’t know that U of Nebraska has an area of tall grass. I would love to see that too, Janet. Thanks for letting me know. I have had the Platte River and the Sandhill crane migration that occurs there on my travel list, now it just got an element richer, with the tall grass. I’ve read a lot of Willa Cather and looked at a lot of old photos too. I understand that men on horseback in the tall grass could barely be seen. Thanks so much for your comment, much appreciated.

  10. Like you, I’ve been fortunate to have visited and enjoyed driving through some of the most beautiful places that I’ll never forget. Also, filled with memories that I treasure fondly, such as seeing lightning strike a pole approximately 200ft from where I was, in South Dakota, or driving into Cody at night and find a full arena with rodeo going on with lights so strong that was like daylight. Or seeing a full-grown​ bison so incredibly close (3ft) by accident in Yellowstone Pk. etc. I could go on and on. Thank you Jet for your great post. 🙂

    • Dear HJ, I so enjoyed reading about your prairie experiences. I haven’t made it to SD yet, but WY and MT dazzled me. It is a world of open space that I find so attractive, and clearly you do too. Gosh, the world is so big and there’s so much to take in. Thanks for taking me to your beautiful places, my friend.

    • Sacred spaces…I have this memory: Athena and I had tried to find a lark bunting, a special prairie sparrow, but hadn’t found one. We had befriended a rancher and he told us he would take us to it, and we drove in his pick-up over his ranchland for about 20 minutes to an obscure corner. The males were in breeding and they do a special dance where they sing melodiously, then fly up, then float down ever so slowly. And there in that grassy place in the middle of nowhere, we sat in the pickup and watched this male float through the warm summer air and disappear into the tall grass. Thanks for reminding me of that sacred space, dear Sylvia.

  11. Jet, one of the things we both loved about living in the Midwest were the prairies and our local Botanic garden had a wonderful restoration prairie for walks. As well there are many wild ones. The way you write about them, makes me miss them and their beauty. We never had bison though Alexandras shots are amazing!

    Your description of the storms brought back memories of storm in Africa because it was always that sweet smell when the rains hit the dried out red soils.

    Thanks for the walk through the prairies.

    Peta

    • A true pleasure to “walk” through the prairies with you, Peta. I also enjoyed hearing about your Midwest experiences with the prairies, and the African storms. One of my favorite places in the world is the Serengeti, the most beautiful prairie in the world in my opinion. Many thanks.

    • I would imagine in your travels and bird adventures that you are experienced with some aspect of the prairies, Donna. I appreciate your visit here as well. Thank you.

      • We traveled and camped through a great deal of the mid-west prairies the summer of 2016. What a trip! We are very much hoping to return there again in next couple years. 🙂

  12. The first few times I drove cross-country (in way back times), I thought the prairies would never END! Later I was fortunate enough to discover that they are far more diverse and fascinating if one can only get off the monotonous interstates. There were tornado warnings during my last jog across the continent and I’ll admit that it frightened me more than our expected Big One here on the coast. It’s reassuring to know that at least some of these prairies are being preserved.

    Thanks for another fun and interesting post which I thoroughly enjoyed.

    • Those of us who have driven cross-country understand exactly what you’re saying, Gunta. Geesh, it takes a long time to get across this country, and the diversity is astounding, and yes, the prairies seem to go on forever. As you say, getting off the interstates and exploring is the key. And your experiences with the tornado skies was much appreciated here too. Really enjoyed your comment, as always…thank you.

  13. Pingback: North American Prairies — Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  14. You’re so right, Jet. Most of us tend to go for the mountains, lakes, and rivers or oceans, but the prairies are often neglected as being of little interest – just boring grasslands. Nothing could be further from the truth, with regard to grasslands. We go to Montana every year and are amazed at the life in the prairies. You’ve captured the richness of the prairies very well.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Anneli. How wonderful that you have the opportunity to go to Montana every year, a great place to enjoy the open skies and wilderness. My warm thanks.

  15. A really delightful post, Jet. There are some amazing creatures living in the Prairies. We were privileged to see some of them on our visit to Montana and Wyoming a few years ago. Thanks for your wonderful photos. Those bison are so awe inspiring.

  16. I love this, Jet! I grew up in the Canadian prairies, in southern Manitoba. I adore the prairies, and I think they are very interesting. Some sights I’ve seen in Manitoba are almost prehistoric…. bullrushes thrice my height, rose hips twice my height and grasses all in between.
    The best, though, is an endless horizon. A person can really breathe in the prairies.

    • I so enjoyed hearing about your experiences with the Manitoba prairies, Resa. It is easy to see, from your intimate descriptions, that you loved growing up here. Thanks so very much for your contribution today, for sharing the magic that you have experienced.

  17. With me you’re preaching to the choir about the prairies in the center of the continent. The Blackland Prairie comes down the east side of Austin. On our trip last month we visited the largest prairie remnant in Ohio, Huffman Prairie, where the Wright Brothers perfected their airplane. Plenty of wildflowers were blooming there even in the heat of summer.

    • Loved hearing about your prairie experiences, Steve. And how wonderful to be where the Wright Brothers toiled so long and so hard on their airplanes; I love knowing there are wildflowers there right now. They were a couple of wild flowers. Many thanks to you.

  18. While it’s true that plain as an English adjective has come to mean ‘undistinguished, ordinary,’ the original meaning of the word, which we borrowed via French from Latin, was ‘flat.’ We still preserve that sense in the spelling plane, as in plane geometry; and of course a plane is a tool a carpenter uses to make a wooden surface flat. The Great Plains are really a Great Plane.

  19. Interesting to learn more about the Prairie, Jet. I’m always amazed at the expansiveness in these open spaces. The photos of the quail and the pronghorn are terrific and love the Carrizo shot. Thanks for another great post.

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