Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some News about Sprague's Pipits and Greater Prairie Chickens

Here are a few news items about grassland birds worth checking out:

Farmers already worried about listing the Sprague's Pipit in the U.S.

The Sprague’s pipit announcement in the US is getting a reaction from farmers worried that it might limit their freedom to use land the way they want to. Check out this recent newspaper article.

A male Sprague’s pipit keeps himself busy at two nests

In Grass, Sky, Song, I pose the possibility that many grassland birds may prefer to nest in loose colonies because adults like to maximize opportunities for having more than one mate at a time. Proving this would help biologists understand the dynamics of local bird decline, because birds with polygamous mating systems tend to need a certain number of their own kind to attract a mate and successfully reproduce. Unfortunately, we can’t prove this because so little research has been done on grassland birds’ breeding biology. Forest bird researchers have done more work in this area by marking adults and doing genetic analysis to prove that these “extra-pair copulations” are common and may ensure that the best genetic material gets passed on to each generation. Well, recently a Wilson Journal of Ornithology (121(4):826-830. 2009) article by Saskatchewan's Kim Dohms and Stephen Davis (who appears in GSS) proved that the male Sprague’s pipit can at least some times be polygynous and even tend two separate nests simultaneously. This was discovered not with DNA analysis but with a video camera recording the same male tending two nests. A couple of years of DNA analysis could show that there is a lot of extra-pair copulation going on in the world of pipits, and in turn help us understand why they are declining and what they require to maintain a healthy population.

Greater prairie chicken declared extirpated in Canada; was ignorance a primary cause?

The CBC web site made a valiant effort at attempting to explain why the Greater Prairie Chicken has been officially declared extirpated in Canada, but stirred a lot of confusion in the bargain. Read their item first and then take a look at the many pages of comments from readers, some of whom are sure that the report is simply wrong because they saw a “prairie chicken” just yesterday (i.e. sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse, you name it), or that the bird never really belonged here in the first place and was somehow introduced by settlers!!

I sometimes find myself trying to convince my wife Karen that knowing the names of things is vital, that you need to actually learn the names of the creatures you share the land with if you want to live well with them. It is easy to say you love nature, but you only love and care for the things you know, and if you cannot recognize the difference between one creature and another, how could you even begin to understand its needs and how to live in ways that allow it to thrive? The confused comments from the folks who read this CBC report on prairie chickens show exactly why it is important to know the birds of the place you live; confirming the thesis that it is our very disconnection from wildness that keeps us in a state of chronic immaturity in which we not only destroy the things we say we love but cannot begin to understand or argue cogently for their value and protection.


  1. I'm convinced that comments should be barred from news websites, or at the very least subject to same conditions as most letters to the editor are, signed with a real, verifiable, name and an accompanying town/city of residence. Reading the comments on many CBC news stories makes me bleed from the temples.

    Apart from that, part of the problem is our knowing the name. When I grew up deer were "jumper", Sharp-tailed Grouse were "prairie chickens" and Roughed Grouse were "partridge".

    So while knowledge is key, many people (falsely) believe they have that knowledge. Perhaps it would have been better if the story had actually included a better description of what the Greater Prairie Chicken was, and how it shouldn't be confused with other birds commonly called "Prairie Chickens"

  2. Thanks for the comment, Clare. I agree that a better written story would've helped in this case.

    I looked at your blog (The House and other Arctic musings). Sounds like you have a great place there on Baffin Island--a place I'd love to visit some day. I saw a "Kiggavik" here the other day coursing over the cropland near Disley.


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