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The Disappearance Of Tallgrass Prairies Is Bad For Birds And The Environment. Earlham Researchers Are Trying To Solve The Problem

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Courtesy Earlham College
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The team uses a "nest rope" to help find nests.

Tallgrass prairies, a complex ecosystem that sustains important birds and wildlife, are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Tallgrass prairies, a complex ecosystem that sustains important birds and wildlife, are disappearing at an alarming rate. They once covered 170 million acres in North America and have been dramatically reduced by agriculture, with the largest remaining area in Kansas.

Much of the important plant life for prairies is underground, away from fire. Some roots can go as deep as 10 to 15 feet and are thought to hold a third of the world's land-based carbon.

Researchers Want To Strengthen Prairies And Grow New Ones

The disappearance of tallgrass prairies is also bad news for birds. That’s what concerns Earlham College researchers. Biology student Josh Angell spent seven weeks this summer studying a tallgrass prairie in Iowa called the Grand River Grasslands. He and his professors collected data, recorded nesting behaviors, and assessed native plant communities. They did this with the hope of strengthening existing grasslands and establishing a new one near Earlham.

“We saw more things than I could imagine," he says. "One of the species we spent the most time looking at was the dickcissel, which is a small brownish yellowish bird. It’s very charismatic.”

It Took Early Hours And Some Sleuthing

Angell and his professors woke up every day at 4 a.m. and headed to the fields to find nests from a diversity of species. The way they found bird nests without scaring them off included a 60-foot long “nest rope.” Empty aluminum cans hang down and make a noise that startles the birds whose nests are buried deep in the tall grass. Angell says the birds shoot up into the air when the rope gets close, and then he can go check the spot to see if there is a nest.

Jamie Coon is a visiting professor of biology and environmental sustainability who started studying the problem of disappearing grasslands in 2014. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, private landowners and researchers from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana began the research in 2006.

“Some surprising findings we’ve had is actually some of the invasive grasses have a very negative impact on the reproduction of grassland birds," Coon says. "So, this is something that needs to be managed and so what we are doing this summer is follow-up research.”

Earlham ornithology professor Wendy Tori was part of the seven-week trip. “These are great opportunities for our students to really go out there and to immerse themselves in the scientific process and do something meaningful that can really have an impact on worldwide conservation.”

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.