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    Every Cog and Wheel

    It’s early summer. The prairie chickens and sharptails are done displaying. Rooster pheasants no longer crow from the ditches. Bobolinks don’t circle overhead, and meadowlarks don’t sing. It’s quiet as it should be in this season when hens sit silently and cryptically on nests.

    But it’s actually too quiet. Even over the constant prairie wind, we should be hearing the drone, buzz and hum of thousands upon thousands of insects.

    A couple years ago as I approached a public hunting area, I saw a crop-dusting airplane in the field across the road. The plane was on its third or fourth pass into the field. I pulled into the back of the public land parking lot to avoid any spray. After the plane passed, I needed to run the windshield wipers several times before I could see. Only few years ago, I cleaned splattered bugs off the truck’s windshield at every fill-up. Now, I can’t remember the last time I had to do that.

    The shooting star is one of the showiest of the spring wildflowers on the prairie.
    The shooting star is one of the showiest of the spring wildflowers on the prairie.
    The guns were oiled and put away months ago. Today we only carry paper bags as my best friend and I walk slowly across the prairie. He is close at heel so as not to disturb any nests. I am stooped over looking closely at the ground in front of me. We are here to hand harvest wildflower seeds from a native prairie.

    Formally and informally, we’ve been surveying plant diversity in native prairie and restored grasslands on public hunting lands near home. Although restorations are more diverse than they were just a few years ago, they still only have a fraction of the plants in a native prairie. As important, there are a number of species that almost never show up in restorations. These are usually species that are short or bloom early or grow on hilltops or wetland margins where the big harvest equipment can’t go. Our efforts focus on these species, one handful of seed at a time.

    I made the tragic mistake as a college freshman of falling in love. The object of my affection was the tallgrass prairie. Today, only 0.1% remains across most of the Midwest. My emotions reflect those of John Madson when he wrote, “My feelings for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.”

    Much of what I see across the Midwest reflects Aldo Leopold’s statement, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Do others see the decline in wildlife and pollinators? The ditches run thick with sediment, the land bleeding away its fertility. Lakes fill with toxic algal blooms. A decade in college, followed by another two decades of teaching about, researching and managing grasslands sometimes leaves me fearful that I know less than that college freshman. I have accumulated more knowledge than he had but have infinitely more questions.

     One thing I do know is that a diverse mixture of native perennials was long ago plowed under and replaced with monocultures of inbred and genetically engineered exotic annuals. If the landscape is wounded, we should try to dress those wounds so they can heal. We do this by covering the land with native grasses and windflowers whose roots sink deep and anchor the soil in place.

    With less than 1% left, it’s not enough to preserve and protect the fragments. We need to restore grasslands and make sure those acres are as diverse and productive for wildlife as possible.

    With full bags, we get in the truck and start to drive away. A prairie chicken hen and her brood sneak out of the grass, dart across the sandy two-track and just as quickly disappear. Those young chicks are the reason we’re out here.

    After we get home, we pour the seeds into cardboard boxes and spread them out to dry. The seeds start to squirm and wiggle with all the insects we inadvertently collected. This may be the most important reason to consider plant diversity when restoring grassland bird habitat.

    Downy gentian is one of the hidden jewels of the late summer prairie, tucked low to the ground on hilltops or sandy area.
    Downy gentian is one of the hidden jewels of the late summer prairie, tucked low to the ground on hilltops or sandy area.

    There are only a few insects, mostly pests, which most can name. Farmers know corn rootworm, foresters know emerald ash borer, and gardeners know potato beetles. These insects are so specialized that they take the plant’s name. Prairie insects include alumroot flea beetle, milkvetch seed weevil, sage leafhopper, phlox stem borer, leadplant gall midge, scurf-pea flower moth and many, many more. For every plant species we add to a restoration, the site potentially attracts additional insect species.

    Insects are full of protein. One study of wood ducks found that a hen needs to eat 60,000 insects to produce a clutch of eggs. A pheasant chick weighs a little over half an ounce when hatched and must grow to a 2-pound bird by fall. For the first few weeks, a bird’s diet is almost entirely insects. More insects mean larger clutches of eggs, healthier faster-growing chicks and better survival. And more birds to chase in the fall.

    Late summer finds massive gleaners noisily marching back and forth across the prairie, harvesting wide swaths of grass and wildflower seed. This time of year we harvest the sunflowers, asters, blazingstars, legumes, mints and warm-season grasses in bulk. The gleaners will harvest tens of thousands of pounds of seed in a few days. We’ll add our seed to this mix.

    As fall progresses, it’s just the two of us again on the quiet prairie. We have plenty of seed for the year. Now it’s just an excuse to be outside, alone together. He stays close but roams at will. After 20 minutes of nothing but the wind in the grass, I hear a snort and scuffle behind me. As I spin around, a rooster cackles indignantly and launches itself skyward. We’ll look him up again in a few weeks.

    Next March we will scatter the seed over snow-covered soybean stubble. The snow will melt, and the daily freeze and thaw will pull the seed down into the soil. In another couple years, a former monoculture agricultural field will be turned into habitat with a diversity of native grasses and wildflowers and an abundance of game birds, waterfowl, songbirds and pollinators. There are few rewards in the field of conservation, and most gratification is delayed. Finding wildflowers in a restoration that you know wouldn’t be there without your efforts is very gratifying.

    Hand harvesting seed is just one more excuse to be outside, to walk more miles, to explore new habitats and spend time alone with my best friend. It’s about walking slowly, observing closely and listening carefully.

    Aldo Leopold tells us that “that the first part of intelligent tinkering is keeping all the cogs and wheels.” Hand harvesting seed is one way to ensure that our habitat restorations, our tinkerings with nature, have as many cogs, wheels, grasses, wildflowers, insects and birds as possible.

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