Latin: Tympanuchus cupido
Great Blue Heron. Photo: Kevin Rutherford.
The Great Plains is a shifting landscape made up of many interdependent ecosystems. Tallgrass prairie and large expanses of grasslands are intermixed with river valleys, wetlands, and woodlands. These habitats are unique and diverse, home to billions of animals and plants that make it a beautiful place to live and a rewarding birding destination. There are more than 400 unique species of birds in the Great Plains region, including the Western Meadowlark, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Bobolinks, Northern Pintail, Northern Flicker, and Scarlet Tanager.
Audubon Great Plains is committed to the conservation and protection of the birds of Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
What we evoke with the very idea of the Great Plains is, of course, extensive grasslands for which it was named. The Great Plains is the world’s largest intact grasslands. But this is not extensive open space, the grasslands are subdivided by the type of grasses that flourish there: tallgrass, mixed-grass, and shortgrass, corresponding with the amount of moisture in the soil, comprising entirely different species of plants and animals.
The soil that supports ‘America’s bread basket’ – its bean and livestock basket as well – nourishes the deep-rooted native grasses. The root systems of native grasses can be five times as deep as the grass is tall. Soil degradation, moisture loss, erosion, and temperature changes have forced farmers and ranchers to change their seasons and methods to keep up with the shifting landscape. Audubon has several programs aimed at recovering the native plants and wildlife that keep our soil rich and fertile.
Our grasslands also have tremendous potential to sequester carbon: 1 acre of Grassland can sequester 5 tons of carbon.
Like sunrise on the prairie, the male Greater Prairie-Chicken’s eyebrows are impossible to forget once you’ve seen them. An almost tropical golden color, the crests match bold air sacs outlined in purple-pink hues on their necks that are revealed when their feather tufts stand upright. Their colors are flaunted as part of their acrobatic brooding dances. When the feathers are down, these handsome birds are sleek and graceful.
Once as far-ranging as their namesake habitat, the Greater Prairie-Chicken is now a rare sight, even in areas where tallgrass prairies remain, such as our Spring Creek Prairie center. The Greater Prairie-Chicken forages through tallgrass or mixed-grass prairies, relying on dense brush for protection. While their greatest threat is the breaking up of their once continuous habitats – fragmentation – they are also vulnerable to spring heat waves, wildfires, and predators. Audubon scientists predict that loss of habitat and warmer seasons will push the Greater Prairie-Chicken to seek grounds in eastern Wyoming and Montana, to the east in Iowa, possibly in south central Canada. Programs like Conservation Forage Program, Prairie Management Toolbox, and Audubon Conservation Ranching have proven that when large intact landscapes are restored, the birds will return. Unfortunately, grassland loss over the Great Plains continues to exceed restoration rates. Birds tell us that conservation programs and protecting natural habitats from fragmentation are well worth the investment.