The prairie is a grassland ecosystem and this is all the animals, plants, and organisms that depend on each other in order to live. When any part of the ecosystem is disturbed, it has an effect on everything else in the ecosystem.
Photo by Marshall Drummond
The prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Would it make you sad if you never saw a real Frosted Elphin or a Karner Blue butterfly? What about a Passenger Pigeon, or a Greater Prairie Chicken? Maybe it would break your heart to never see Golden Indian Grass, or Small-Flowered Sand Verbena? These are all creatures or plants that are either no longer found in Canada or at risk because of human activity in the prairies.
Karner Blue Butterfly
We may think of the prairies as enormous fields of grass and flowers, and at one time they were with over 200 different species of plants, but today most of the original prairie has been turned into enormous fields of wheat, rapeseed, flaxseed, sugar beets, barley or potatoes.
Field of Canola
Let’s take a short visit to the prairie. Can you see the wind as it blows across the land, bending and tossing the grasses? The green and brown of the landscape, with touches of colour here and there, stretches to the sky in every direction. Doesn’t it make you feel small? Can you hear the sounds of insects buzzing, and birds singing?
Here is a grass that can grow to 10 feet tall, and it’s roots can descend into the ground up to 12 feet. It is called Big Bluestem, or sometimes Beard Grass or Turkey Feet because it has long seed heads that look like a turkey foot. When a lot of it grows together, it protects the soil from being blown away by the wind and is excellent food for grazers like the bison.
Aren’t the seedheads lovely on this Buffalo Grass? It is a much smaller grass, growing only to a height of a few inches, but it is able to grow with very little water. And it doesn’t mind being chewed down by the prairie dogs – it will just grow right back.
And there are the prairie dogs, popping out of their burrows to see what is going on. They play a very important part of prairie life – many other creatures use their abandoned burrows, they are a food source for other animals, and they aerate and fertilize the ground. However, there are not as many as there once were.
We will end our time in the prairie with the song of the meadowlark, a beautiful bird who loves the wide open grasslands too.
There are attempts to preserve some of the prairies for the future: Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, and the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve in Manitoba are probably the two largest in Canada. Maybe you will have to visit them one day!
Activity: Since I am writing this post while there is snow on the ground, it is not a great time of year to look at grasses, but I wonder if you have ever noticed how many different kinds of grass grow near you. What would you find if you left one corner of your lawn un-mown until the grass went to seed? Grass is beautiful, and so when the season is right, collect some grasses and enjoy their beautiful seedheads.
Until then, you can find out a bit more about the prairie with this little game: Build your own prairie.