Earth Day is April 22nd and is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. This year we want to celebrate the month of April by showcasing our commitment to protecting the environmental health of our local communities, Wisconsin and the planet through environmentally based education, research and outreach at UW—Green Bay, the Original EcoU!
North America has the highest mussel biodiversity in the world, with over 300 species, but more than 40% of those species are imperiled, especially in the Midwestern states. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, no other group of animals in North America is in such grave danger of extinction! The major threats that these species face are siltation, water pollution, damming or conversion of streams, and the presence of invasive mussels (zebra mussels). Wisconsin is home for 51 species of freshwater mussels and 33 of those are considered endangered, threatened or rare enough to be of special concern. Only 18 species currently have healthy populations.
UW–Green Bay graduate student Jesse Weinzinger is on a mission to better protect Wisconsin’s freshwater mussels, one of North America’s most diverse and ecologically important aquatic species. Mussels are ecosystems engineers that filter nutrients and particles improving water quality downstream. They also stabilize stream bottoms and provide habitat and food for fish and mammals.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, along with the help of university researchers and citizen scientist volunteers, are surveying mussels in streams to learn more about the lifecycles and population structure of these important animals. However, the current survey protocol is very labor intensive and the state lacks the funds and staff to maintain long term monitoring efforts. Jesse is investigating ways to make the monitoring of Wisconsin’s mussels faster and easier. He is working with the WI DNR to establish a rapid assessment protocol for volunteers of the Mussel Monitoring Program of Wisconsin. The end result will be an efficient, teachable, and easy-to-use protocol that will provide new volunteer opportunities and, if the method is applied successfully, results will provide rigorous quantitative data to inform the DNR as it makes management decisions.
Did you get a shamrock plant for Saint Patrick’s Day? It was most likely one of a few species in the genus Oxalis. Over 800 different species of Oxalis occur throughout most of the world, especially in Central America and South Africa. Their common name wood sorrel or in Europe wood sour refers to high concentrations of oxalic acid in the leaves and stems. Some are cultivated for their nutritious rhizomes, especially acta (O. tuberosa) in South America. Others like candycane sorrel (O. versicolor) and purple shamrock (O. triangularis), are prized by florists and gardeners because of their showy leaves and flowers and it is likely that you received one of these.
But is Oxalis “the” shamrock? According to Bess Lovejoy writing for Smithsonian.com, nobody is sure what plant species the stylized 3-leaved shamrock represents. Some, like 19th Century British botanist James Ebenezer Bicheno claimed that wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) was the “true” shamrock. Perhaps unconvinced that the British would best know which plant the Irish should call shamrock, Dublin native and amateur botanist Nathaniel Colgan decided to conduct a poll in 1892. He had people from different counties in Ireland send him specimens of shamrocks they had collected. Although there were no single winner based on his results, it seems that the Irish favor a few species of Clovers (Trifolium) especially white clover (Trifolium repens). Botanist E. Charles Nelson, repeated the study in 1988 and found similar results. Although most people selected among several species of clovers, about 5% of participants selected Oxalis as their shamrock.
White clover is common in our region especially in agricultural and other grassy open fields, however, it is not native and can be invasive, so we are choosing one of our native species of Oxalis, the northern wood sorrel (O. montana or O. acetosella f. montana), as our symbol of the season. The plants are still hunkered down as underground rhizomes, but you will be able to find these forest plants blooming throughout the western Great Lakes region in June. Look for it in boreal and mixed evergreen-deciduous forests or in northern maple beech hardwood forests.
We have several bright yellow flowered Oxalis species in WI which are somewhat associated with disturbed sites, and only two white to pale purple/rose flowered species as in O. acetosella. There is a similar species in southern WI called the violet wood sorrel (O. violacea). The two species are almost perfectly segregated geographically in the state—SW dry and sunny (violacea) versus NE moist to wet and forested (acetosellaf. montana).
Almost 80% of songbirds that nest in Wisconsin are migratory, many traveling vast distances every spring and fall. Songbirds typically migrate at night and seek out patches of natural habitat at daybreak where they can rest. These areas must provide shelter from storms and predators, as well as provide high quality food resources so the birds can refuel for the next leg of their journey. Unfortunately, stopover habitats are becoming scarcer as natural habitat is converted for human use and landscapes become more fragmented.
Stopover habitats are a critical resource for these birds, but the ecology of birds during stopover periods is not well understood. And because increasingly large numbers of birds congregate in these fragmented habitats, ecological interactions can be intense. This may because there are many species interacting under highly variable environmental conditions. Graduate student Stephanie Beilke is banding birds to learn more about how migratory birds are affected by the type of stopover habitats they choose. Her research on migratory bird assemblages will provide insights into the resource demands and evolutionary history of migratory birds and will ultimately provide a better understanding of stopover site ecology and help guide the conservation and protection of Great Lakes coastal habitats for migratory birds.
Point au Sable offers a perfect opportunity to learn more about stopover ecology. It is a mosaic of different natural habitats including lowland and upland forest, wetlands, and Great Lakes beach. Since the late 1990s, migrating passerines have been studied at Point au Sable Natural Area, a peninsula that juts out into the lower Green Bay, just north of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay campus. Through the years, Point au Sable has experienced many ecosystem changes including invading exotic vegetation, declining water-levels in the Bay of Green Bay, and ongoing habitat management and restoration. Despite these changes, point counts and mist-netting operations conducted by UW – Green Bay researchers have shown that large concentrations of avian migrants use Point au Sable during both spring and fall migration
This fall Stephanie and her group of volunteers set up nearly invisible finely-meshed mist nets in openings where birds are likely to fly through. Birds fly into the nets and become entangled. Trained technicians collect the birds, and then take measurements and either read the existing band or place a new a U.S. Geological Survey aluminum numbered band on the bird’s leg. Volunteers help to set up and take down the nets, alert the technicians to new arrivals, and help to record data collected. In this study netted birds will be weighed and scored for visible chest fat. Different length and width measurements are also collected. Technicians work quickly and carefully to limit the amount of stress endured by the birds.
They banded birds on 25 different days at two locations at Point au Sable Natural Area. Six mist nets were set up in either coastal shrub or in upland forest. The average capture rate was 40 birds per net, but one net in the coastal area caught 79 new birds as well as 3 recaptured birds. Forty-seven different species were banded, including 100 Tennessee Warblers. They also captured large numbers of White-throated Sparrows, American Robins, Hermit Thrushes and Golden-crowned Kinglets.
Some of the species they caught were “firsts” for the project, meaning they had never been captured before, including Black-billed Cuckoo, Blue-headed Vireo, Purple Finch, and Winter Wren. The crew also banded one Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on October 12, which, according to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, makes it a record late observation for the state. Most Yellow-bellied Flycatchers have migrated south by the end of September.
Stephanie will be banding again Spring 2014, stay tuned to the blog or like us on Facebook to find out how to volunteer.
In the area around the City of Green Bay many trees have lost all or most of their leaves, especially the commonest and most abundant species such as green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), box elder (Acer negundo), and cottonwood (Populus deltoides). Other species generally leafless now include: white birch (Betula papyrifera), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), and wild cherries (Prunus serotina and Prunus virginiana).
Species still holding leaves include the invasive buckthorns (Rhamnus cathartica and Frangula alnus), Norway maple (Acer platanoides) and to a lesser degree silver maple (Acer saccharinum). The oaks also tend to hang onto their leaves, even after they turn brown (see Nov. 4). The photo at left shows still-green leaves of European buckthorn under the mostly bare branches of other species. If you look carefully, you may also notice green leaves still on the branches of a crack willow (Salix fragilis, another alien species) behind the other trees, toward the right side.
If birds summering in the Western Great Lakes region have a favorite fruit, it has to be the Juneberry (Amelanchier spp.). Two weeks before the fruit were ripe our resident American Robin would make a daily visit to the trees outside my office, hop from branch to branch, cocking his head to get the best eye-full of berry. He would sample ones that had already brightened to rosy pink, sometimes dropping the fruit if it was too green. On the day the first fruit ripened, she had the tree to herself for about 3 hours before the first Cedar Waxwings arrived. At the height of the harvest on the single tree, I counted one adult Robin, three juvenile Robins, 8 Cedar Waxwings, a pair of Northern Cardinals, and one shy Grey Catbird that was immediately chased off by the Waxwings.
I usually cannot help myself, and sneak out to pick a handful of the fruit for myself. The flavor is reminiscent of blueberries, but has definite plum or dark cherry flavors as well. A serving of juneberries provides 23% of the recommended amount of iron and are high in potassium, and magnesium, vitamin C, B6, A and E. Cooking the berries improves the sweetness and flavor of the fruit, so feel free to eat that whole juneberry pie!
There are 20 named species in the genus Amelanchier (Rosaceae). There are almost as many common names to describe these shrubs and small trees including juneberry, shadbush, shadwood, shadblow, serviceberry or sarvisberry, wild pear or chuckley pear, sugarplum or wild-plum, and even chuckleberry, currant-tree, orsaskatoon. In the southwest, Amelanchier denticulata is referred to as Membrillo, Membrillito, Madronillo, Cimarron, Tlaxistle, or Tlaxisqui. The common names often vary by location and many relate different phenological events together. Juneberry is obvious, and is most often used for the species that occur in the Midwest where the berries usually ripen in June, (however this year they did not ripen in Green Bay until July 2nd). Several names refer to the flavor or shape of the fruit including membrillo, which is Spanish for quince, or to location, such as Saskatoon or Cimarron. Names that include shad are derived from New England and eastern Canada, where the shrubs bloom in early spring at about the same time that Shad (fish in genus Alosa) return to rivers to spawn. Service or “Sarvis” supposedly relates back to the time of itinerant preachers that traveled in New England. The plants bloom in early spring shortly after the trails are clear of snow and the preachers were able to travel to the towns. I could find no source for chuckleberry, but it seems likely a corruption of the older chuckley pear, another name that I could find little history on.
Amelanchiers are important plants for native landscapes. These shrubs provide nectar for early emerging pollinators especially native bees and overwintering butterflies, fruit for birds, and are hosts for the larvae of several species of butterflies. The plants provide four season interest, including beautiful white flowers in early spring, berries in early summer, foliage that that turns to brilliant oranges to deep reds in fall, and beautiful vase shaped silver barked stems in the winter. There are a variety of forms available to suit most areas from small shrubs to branching specimen tree that can grow to 25 feet in height. The eastern varieties are understory shrubs that are well suited to woodland or shady areas. And if you are lucky and can beat the birds to harvest, the sweet fruit can be used in almost any recipe that calls for blueberries.
Flowers, form, and berries of Amelanchier laevis, a common serviceberry in Wisconsin and the eastern United States. Other species have similar flowers and fruit.
There is at least one species of Amelanchier that is native somewhere on mainland North America and all species are edible, so it should be possible to find a variety that will thrive in your yard. Native varieties should be available at specialty nurseries and many nurseries carry the Apple Serviceberry (Amelanchier X Grandiflora), a hybrid between Amelanchier canadensis and Amelanchier laevis that grows 15 to 25 feet tall and has large showy flowers. There are several named varieties with different growth habits, fall coloration, and disease resistance. “Autumn Brilliance” is one hybrid variety that is most readily available in the Midwest. All species are edible, although some produce more or larger fruit and new disease resistant horticultural varieties are now available that make growing these plants easy for home gardeners.
Wisconsin birders are looking forward to an excellent finch winter!
Birds that usually winter in Canada are moving south. These atypical “irruptive migrations” are usually caused by changes in winter food availability and can occur in several northern species especially finches, owls and evening grosbeaks. This year finch species that normally winter in Canada and the northern United States are ranging farther south due to a massive crop failure of fruit and cone bearing trees in Canada. Birding expert and Ontario resident Ron Pittaway compiles local seed crop and late summer bird observations to create a detailed “Winter Finch Forecast” available through Ebird every autumn. The Wisconsin Ebird group uses the Pittaway data to create detailed forecasts for our area. Based on the two forecasts we should expect to see Red and White-winged Crossbills, Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks joining resident Goldfinches, House and Purple Finches this winter in northeastern Wisconsin.
Pine Grosbeaks have been steadily moving into the state in small flocks. Look for them on the UW—Green Bay campus feeding on crab apples, especially near the Kress Center. This is a taiga species which is considered an irruptive winter visitor across the Midwest and east. The last really large widespread movement into Wisconsin was in 1977 and again in 1985. They love to dine on crabapples, high bush cranberries, left over apples in orchards, sumac, mountain ash, and when food supplies are exhausted, the seeds of the box elder ash. Pine Grosbeaks will also switch to backyard feeders when black sunflower seeds are offered, but for now, it is find the fruit trees first!!
Evening Grosbeaks have been on the decline in Wisconsin in recent years and are usually only seen reliably in the far north of the state. Evening Grosbeaks nest as close as Lakewood, Oconto County, annually. However, based on arrival data, the birds being seen now are coming from the northwest. Observations were reported from Duluth as birds rounded Lake Superior. So far this year there are a few reports in Oconto, southern Brown, and Manitowoc counties. Their preferred seeds are box elder and other maple species. They will also visit platform feeders supplied with black oil sunflower seeds.
Red and White-winged Crossbill species have staged a massive irruption into Wisconsin. Although these birds are unlikely to come to backyard feeders, look for them in conifer swamps and bogs in the far North, the Green Bay area, and in conifer groves along the Lake Michigan Lake shore from Manitowoc down to Chicago. Interestingly, according to Ebird, the Red crossbills arriving in Wisconsin are from western Canada escaping a hemlock seed crop failure in the Pacific Northwest.
Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Goldfinches are common winter residents throughout northeastern Wisconsin and while abundant are not occurring in higher than expected numbers. Purple Finches have apparently moved on and are now below expected numbers. House Finch populations are way up after declining for a number of years. These birds prefer small seeds including birch, alder, willow, tamarack, and weedy field forbs. They will visit backyard nyjer (thistle) and black oil sunflower seed offered in feeders.
Two non-finch species are also irrupting south in response to the seed failures in Canada.
Bohemian Waxwings, while not finches, are another fruit loving bird that is irrupting southward because of the Canadian fruit crop failure and are expected to appear in large numbers in our area this year. In fact a flock of over 250 Bohemian Waxwings seen in Door County was recently reported to Ebird. These birds are voracious fruit feeders so look for them in urban or natural areas with fruit bearing trees like mountain ash, Juniper, and crabapples. These assertive birds will compete with Pine Grosbeaks for access to fruit trees. Bohemian waxwings form pure flocks of their own species or in mixed flocks with Cedar Waxwings.
Rose-breasted Nuthatches feed on conifer seeds and so are also arriving in high numbers from the same northern regions because of the cone failure. They are often seen at platform feeders eating sunflower seeds and also will feed at suet feeders.
Ebird recommends that people hoping to attract winter finches to their yards put out platform or other large flat surface feeders with black oil sunflower seeds. All finches like small seeded sunflower seeds and some finches like Goldfinches, Redpolls and Siskins also will feed on nyjer in tube or bag feeders. Most finches are attracted to water, so maintaining a heated bird bath or water feature will bring birds to your yard.
It is going to be a very delightful finch winter.
Tom Erdman contributed to the text and Tom Prestby provided photos
Ebird is a real-time, online checklist program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. The website provides access to basic information on bird abundance and distributions. http://ebird.org/content/ebird/
UW—Green Bay graduate student and Biodiversity Center technician Tom Prestby took the photos for this blog entry. See his other fabulous bird photos at http://www.pbase.com/tprestby
The summer months are a time when our prairies and grasslands come alive with color. In the Cofrin Memorial Arboretum, on the UW—Green Bay campus, a prairie was established by botanist Dr. Keith White and his students in 1974. This demonstration of mesic prairie, where the soils are moderately damp, and dryer oak opening habitats provides students an opportunity to experience these ecosystems firsthand, without having to travel off-campus. It is now a popular walking and biking destination for community members and students who need a break from the stress of classes and work. Our main objective on this prairie is to manage for plant diversity that will support other native species including increasingly rare grassland nesting birds.
If you have a chance to walk the trail through the prairie you will see many unique plant species in flower during the mid-summer. As in all prairies, the plant community in the Keith White Prairie is dominated by a few grass species including Big Bluestem (Andropogongerardii), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). Grasses are wind pollinated and so do not typically have large showy flowers. Instead, grasses have small inflorescences on spikes that become showier in the late summer and fall as the seeds mature.
The colorful jewels of the prairie are the forbs or showy flowering plants. These plants produce flowers that attract insect or hummingbird pollinators and are often showy and colorful. Flowers in the prairie are primarily yellows and purples, which attract insects like bees and butterflies. The most common tall plants you will see in flower in mid-July through August include Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), many species of Goldenrods (Solidago Spp.), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).
When the prairie was planted, careful consideration was made to match different plants to their preferred soil conditions (e.g. water moisture, productivity). As a result, the numbers and types of flowers vary in different parts of the prairie, even from year to year, in response to weather conditions. A careful observer will be rewarded with a display of flowers that bloom below the grasses and tall forbs. Some of the species to look for are Purple Prairie Clover (Daleapurpurea) andWhite Prairie Clover (Daleacandida), which are adapted to dry soils; andBush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata), and Nodding Pink Onion (Allium cernuum), which are adapted to mesic (moderately damp) soils.
The Keith White Prairie is alive with color in the summer and fall and is always a great place to walk. You never know what plants or animals you might see.
Are you trying to decide between working out at the gym and taking a walk in the woods? If you are interested in improving your mental, as well as your physical health, new research recommends heading for the woods.
Most people would probably agree that a walk in the woods (barring mosquitoes) has a reviving effect on our mental well-being. Writers, from Pliny to Thoreau, have touted the recuperative benefits of nature. Frederick Law Olmsted, the Landscape Architect who founded The Clearing, located in Door County, WI, wrote in 1865 “the enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.” In 1985 E. O. Wilson explored this love of nature in his book “Biophilia”. In it he championed the idea that our attraction to nature goes beyond the aesthetic to the genetic, that our love of nature is actually genetically programmed.
A new study led by Richard Mitchell of the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health, at Glasgow University agrees with Wilson’s assertion. They looked at the locations that 1800 physically active people chose for exercise and then compared that data to measures of their mental health. Interestingly, only activity in the natural environment was associated with a lower risk of poor mental health. Those that chose to exercise in woodlands or parks had a 50% greater effect on positive mental health compared to those who chose the gym. The study also indicates that the positive effects of activity in a natural area cause a physiological change that goes beyond the effect of positive thought. Our biology actually changes when we experience nature.
There have been a number of theories that have been proposed to try to explain the physiological beneficial influence of nature, but probably the two best-known theories are the Attention Restoration Theory of Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) and the psycho-evolutionary theory developed by Ulrich and his colleagues in the 1990s. These theories explain the influence of nature, especially plants, on the reduction of stress and mental fatigue. Both theories consider the recovery effects of viewing nature to have a biological cause.
Attention restoration theory suggests that fatigue caused by trying to concentrate on a project in the face of continued distractions can be restored by quiet exercise and reflection in a natural environment. It is based on the assumption that natural settings are “quietly fascinating” and draw our attention without our even realizing it. We observe nature in a way that requires no effort, and is pleasing because it creates a sense of order and meaning. However, watching nature is not so attention grabbing that it prevents the reflective thought that allows us to recover from mental fatigue. Natural settings, they argue, also reduce stress because they create a feeling of “getting away” or escaping from the work environment.
Another theory, developed by Ulrich and Parson in the 1990s, argues that our modern world is over-stimulating because it is too visually complex and loud. They argue that natural settings reduce stress because they mimic the natural habitats that we evolved in. We are drawn to and have a positive psychological response to natural settings like woodland edges, grassy meadows and ponds and stream edges. Visiting natural spaces like the Cofrin Arboretum or other natural areas speeds recovery from stress.
Other studies agree with the results reached by Mitchell and his colleagues. Studies by several Japanese researchers have shown that forest walks result in lower blood pressure, pulse rates and cortisol levels, as well as increased heart healthy hormones. A study by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty in 2010 determined that spending just five minutes walking in an outdoor natural setting caused improved mental and emotional health. A study by Roe and Aspinall (2010) found that rural walks had a more restorative effect on mental health than urban walks did. They also found that those with poorer mental health saw even greater restorative effect from walking in a rural landscape. In a different study they found that when children with extreme behavior problems spent time in forest settings, they developed positive emotional responses, like improved trust, over time (Roe and Aspinall 2011).
What is the take home message? Go take a walk in the woods. Nature can help those of us that live and work in complex stressful environments to be physiologically healthier if we take the time to visit natural areas to de-compress. There is a positive biological effect on your body when you experience trees, vegetation, streams and ponds.
Barton, J. and Pretty, J. (2010) What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2010, 44 (10), pp 3947–3955
R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan. (1989) The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Roe, J. and Aspinall, P. (2011): The restorative benefits of walking in urban and rural settings in adults with good and poor mental health, Health & Place 17, 103-113
Roe, J. and Aspinall, P. (2011): The emotional affordances of forest settings: an investigation in boys with extreme behavioural problems. Landscape Research.
Ulrich, Roger S., Robert F. Simons, Barbara D. Losito, Evelyn Fiorito, Mark A. Miles, and Michael Zelson. 1991. Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology 11: 201-230.
Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Everyone has noticed how strange our spring weather has been this year. One thing you might be wondering is why this occurred, or how this weather affects the natural world. The study of the timing of natural events is called phenology. There are three main factors that affect phenology 1) sunlight 2) temperature and 3) precipitation. Some examples of phenology include when migrating birds return, when plants first flower, and when lakes freeze and reopen. It is important to keep phenological records. By keeping records it allows us to look at the changes over the years at different geographic regions. This also helps us understand interactions between organisms and their environment and the effects of climate change. The Cofrin Arboretum Center for Biodiversity keeps records of important natural events in the western Great Lakes region during all months of the year. These records can be accessed at http://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/phenology/. The Wisconsin State Climatology Office also holds an impressive database which you can access at http://www.aos.wisc.edu/~sco/.
Why is phenology so important? Over the years we observe that phenological events vary. Ecosystems are able to recover from variation between years but when these changes happen consistently over a long period, the timing of events (flowering, leafing, migration, and insect emergence) can impact how plants and animals thrive in their environments. The success and survival of an ecosystem depend on the timing of phenological events. For example, if the timing of emergence of leaves changes it can result in fewer seeds/insects which would impact animals that depend on those seeds/insects for food. Consider the difference in spring vegetation in the Cofrin Arboretum between May 4th of 2010 and 2011. Early leaf-out can result in a longer growing season and better habitat as long as a late freeze does not kill tender vegetation or developing flowers or fruits.
On the Wiscoonsin Statewide Monthly Temperature for the last 12 months graph it is shown that the monthly average temperature for this year is obviously higher when compared to the normal monthly temperature.
This temperature increase leads to sooner blooming of flowers and plants as well as earlier date arrivals for some migratory birds. This year the early migratory birds have to fight a little harder to survive. On the cold days when there aren’t any insects small birds have a more difficult time staying warm and full because they have nothing to eat. If they would have waited to return at their normal migration date they may not have this type of problem. Everything is inter-linked in nature and the weather plays a key role in determining what survives and what doesn’t. It will be exciting to watch this interesting weather continue throughout the year.
Spring brings many new things with it as it approaches (rather early this year I might add). One of the most interesting and entertaining things I have experienced is Prairie Chicken Booming. I had no idea what to expect on this trip, but I was in for a real treat.
Prairie Chickens are one of four native grouse (Ruffed Grouse, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, and Spruce Grouse). Prairie Chickens prefer grasslands for nesting, brood-rearing, roosting, feeding, and loafing. They also prefer wide horizons which allow them to see and be seen for great distances.
What is Prairie Chicken Booming? It is the courting of a female Prairie Chicken by multiple anxious male suitors. In the spring, males (cocks) gather on booming grounds or leks. Males battle each other for the small territories (50 feet in diameter) with displays, postures, and physical combat. Cocks occupy the same territories every morning during the mating season. At the end of these battles some of the males end up pretty battered and bloodied. Besides fighting for the ladies’ attention, cocks advertise with foot stomp dances, displaying feathers, orange eyebrows and air sacs, snapping tail feathers, and “booming” which can be heard greater than one mile away on still mornings. Booming is a three note call that is enhanced by their inflated air sacs. When females (hens) are present, cocks intensity their displays by adding a “whoop” to their three note boom. As I sat out in the brisk morning air I compared the Prairie Chickens to cartoon characters with their eccentric jumping and curious sounds.
Prairie Chickens have a pretty interesting back-story as well. In the early 1900’s Prairie Chickens flourished and were hunted until 1955. Grassland habitat began to disappear due to farming, tree planting, and natural succession and in turn the Prairie Chicken numbers plunged. The best remaining populations were in central Wisconsin and initial land was acquired on the Buena Vista Marsh in 1954. Drs. Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom were instrumental when it came to the preservation of this species. They both studied under Aldo Leopold who was an avid environmentalist and brilliant professor from the University of Wisconsin. The Hamerstroms revolutionized wildlife study with their work on Prairie Chickens. Through their research and commitment they preserved the existence of Prairie Chickens in Wisconsin. It is because of them that we still have this unique bird in our state.