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.
With the experience of previous generations, we have discovered that natural ecosystems, like grasslands, provide profound balance and abundant sustainable activity.
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.
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.
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.
Wildlife in the prairies are dependent on open expanses, grasses and forbs. Grazers like bison, pronghorn antelope, deer, and elk live here.
Insects here are grasshoppers, moths, beetles, and butterflies. Small mammals like rodents, reptiles, and prairie dogs occupy this habitat. Jackrabbits and coyote too.
The vast open plains are also home to many bird species: raptors and burrowing owls, seed-eating birds, field birds like bobwhites and quail.
In addition, large migrating bird populations pass through the continent’s grassland habitats.
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.
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.
Many plains and prairies show a vibrant display of wildflowers every spring. With the huge expanse of wildflowers brings the pollinating bees.
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.