These recent posts by Phil Wire and others have been most helpful and illuminating.
Bob Fisher
Independence, MO
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----- Original Message -----
From: "Philip Wire" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Thursday, October 15, 2009 10:37 AM
Subject: Re: Greater Prairie Chicken in Mo

> Gonna try to cover a few prairie chicken issues with one email, so
> hopefully this doesn't get too long or cumbersome. No promises :-)
> Regarding farm expansion and the prairie chicken: Missouri's peak time
> for prairie chickens actually occurred when MO's prairie areas were
> roughly half prairie and half farmland, around 1870.  Reasons--waste
> grains from farms helped prairie chickens survive winters, and farmers
> often cleared wooded areas, increasing open landscapes. This has been
> very well documented in other neighboring states too. Human settlement
> could actually be such a positive influence for prairie chickens that
> it not only increased their densities, but increased their range, even
> into areas that had been almost entirely forested previously, such as
> parts of Wisconsin where Leopold studied them that prior to white
> settlement had been almost pure jack pine forest. Conclusion--it's not
> as simple as agriculture=bad for the prairie chicken. I will sit out
> the debate of who is to "blame" for the loss of the old-school family
> farm, but the historical evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea
> that diverse, small scale farming that preserves some grassland
> acreage is quite compatible with prairie chicken presence, and that
> our current model of farming does not.
> Let's take Bob Fisher's example of Taberville. I've only visited
> Taberville once and have no historical frame of reference for the
> area, so let's just say that the surrounding habitat is in the same
> usage it was 37 years ago. Here is my best guess: technology and
> farming practices have changed a lot since then, even if it doesn't
> change the visual appearance much.  A hayfield is not always the same
> hayfield--how many times was it mowed last summer? Once? Three times?
> Huge difference to the chickens. One mowing in mid-July can be neutral
> or even beneficial, three mowings all but assures a hen nesting in the
> field will have a chopped up nest and no winter cover. A cornfield is
> not always the same cornfield--what kind of harvest methods are the
> farmers using? Is it leaving as much waste grain? Are farmers leaving
> up their wheat stubble, which chickens prefer?  Are there more cattle
> on existing pastures, changing the grass from moderately grazed
> (beneficial) to heavily grazed (detrimental)? All questions I do not
> know the answer to for this area. But I would place a large wager that
> changes have taken place, even if they are not changes easily
> registered to the eye.
> As for weather... my theory is based on nowhere near the amount of
> data that my other conclusions are, I'll state from the outset this is
> more of a hunch, and is only a consideration within the larger picture
> of habitat degradation. It's based on a study I read on Attwater's
> Prairie Chickens back from when there were still some wild ones left
> on coastal prairies. It characterized Attwater breeding success in a
> sustaining population roughly as such: out of every 5 years, two years
> would be almost a total loss, two years would be a slight net loss,
> and one year would be a good year. The primary variables examined were
> temperature and precipitation during the days when chicks had just
> hatched. Obviously, prairie chickens developed an evolutionary defense
> for this-- large clutch sizes, which also helps with the predation
> problem. If there is a good year, hens can crank out a lot of
> chicks... as long as there are enough hens and safe places for them to
> nest.
> Let's say that the Attwater's is different enough from our Greater
> Prairie-Chicken that you can't extrapolate those facts exactly-- I
> still think the strategies and weather phenomena are close enough to
> make some worthwhile comparisons. And, given the cold, driving rains
> we've had in late May and early June in most of last past several
> years, it might help explain why things have gotten so terrible
> despite some good habitat work. I won't fault someone for not buying
> this-- but I think it's possible, and the nesting data I saw for
> turkeys in MO the past few years (horrible, especially one and two
> years ago) seems to add a little verification, as poults are
> vulnerable to the same things.
> If I could characterize why things have gotten so bad, I might borrow
> a phenomenon from the social sciences. The Gestalt theory of
> psychology (birders are familiar with it from the term jizz, or gizz,
> or giss, or whatever, as it pertains to ID factors) states that the
> whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So it is with the threats
> to the prairie chicken.  No problem exists in a vacuum-- so let's list
> some of the threats.
> Major:
> --Loss of permanent grassland habitat
> --Degradation of existing grassland habitat
> Moderate/Minor:
> --Loss of diverse grasslands (native grasses, forbs), or beneficial
> species of non-native grasses
> --More efficient, mechanized agriculture leaves less waste grain for
> winter feeding
> --Possible increase in predators
> --Series of cold, rainy days at inopportune times recently
> These are a few, but they will work.  Each problem serves to compound
> upon the other, making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
> For example, loss of permanent grassland habitat means fewer areas for
> nests, which makes a possible predator increase a much larger problem
> than it would be on its own. Loss of diverse habitat with many species
> of plants means there might be fewer thick clumps of chosen grasses or
> forbs to nest in, which makes hens more vulnerable to nest predation.
> Grassland birds are amazing in their ability to nest near species of
> plants that either help conceal from or deter mammalian grazers and
> predators--given that these plants are still there.
> Long story short--when so many factors compound upon one another,
> relatively minor changes, as part of the whole picture, become quite
> problematic--even catastrophic.
> If one wants more detail, I would consider reading the paper at the
> following link. It covers more than I can cover here.
> I looked at the
> prairie chicken problem as a social scientist might. (I hate it when
> people push their own work, but it might help some folks see more of
> the historical picture). I welcome critiques of the paper too, I'll be
> the first to admit it needs a few minor changes.
> One last thing: it is easy to view the prairie chicken as a somehow
> weak or helpless creature, unable to cope with modernity because of
> ineffective survival skills or adaptation. No way. Prairie chickens
> are survival machines that adapted to a very difficult place to live:
> a bird that can survive a Minnesota winter and a Missouri summer using
> only grasses for cover; a bird that can routinely outfly a Peregrine,
> even making the former look like it is standing still in level flight;
> a football sized-bird that nests on the ground within reach of the
> entire suite of an ecosystem's predators and some still live to "tell
> the tale"-- it is an amazingly well adapted bird that deals with a
> number of regular threats that make our daily lives seem like
> cakewalks. I have heard some people say (mostly non-birders) when I
> have described the situation that prairie chickens sound too picky or
> not suited to survival threats in a tough world. I've flatly refused
> to see the prairie chicken on those terms, and I think everyone else
> should as well.
> Thanks for bearing with the novel here. For those of you who read this
> at work, have your employers send me the bill for the lost hours of
> productivity ;-)
> Phil Wire
> Edwardsville, IL, Madison Co.
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