Monday, April 27, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song Illustrated:
"Counting Birds"

this beautiful McCown's longspur image courtesy of Alan MacKeigan

In "Counting Birds" I get down to the numbers and how we arrive at them. How do we know that grassland birds, or any birds for that matter, are in decline? Well, in North America, the primary set of data is the Breeding Bird Survey or BBS.

As the Canadian Wildlife Service web page on the BBS says, "The North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is an avian survey designed to collect long-term data on the population status and trends of breeding birds throughout North America. It was initiated in 1966 . . . . [and] is coordinated in Canada by the Canadian Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Research Centre, and in the United States by the U.S. Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The BBS is a volunteer survey. In 2000, over 484 BBS routes were run in Canada by some 325 volunteers, while over 2300 routes were run in the U.S. In Canada, participants run their routes between 28 May and 7 July. Volunteers are encouraged to run their routes during the peak of the breeding season, usually the first two weeks of June. The starting point and starting direction of routes are selected randomly in order to sample a range of habitats. Each participant runs his or her individual route for as many consecutive years as possible. Routes consist of 50 stops spaced 0.8 km apart along a 39.4-km route. Participants record the total number of individual bird species heard or seen within 0.4 km of each stop during a three-minute observation. Data on starting and finishing times, as well as weather conditions, are also recorded."

This is a map showing in red the routes established in Saskatchewan. I have done the Crooked Lake route for several years and this summer I will be taking on a second route at Tyvan.

This chapter picks up our trail following John Macoun's 1880 expedition 125 years later as Stuart and Mary Houston and I leave the Pipestone Creek valley and head west through Moose Mountain to the first real native prairie we saw, Tecumseh Community Pasture. This is a shot of Stuart during that trip. Toward the end of the chapter we talk about the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration(PFRA), which manages Tecumseh and some of the finest stretches of native grass on the continent.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

To Make a Prairie--Part V, Artists and a Culture of Advocacy

a view north toward Deep Lake in the Upper Indian Head Creek drainage

At the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina two nights ago a group of artists and environmentalists came together to talk about the role art can play in helping the wider culture address environmental issues. (Listen to a podcast here.) We talked about advocacy and activism and the leadership artists can provide with some of the big energy issues we are facing right now: climate change, dirty oil, and the renewed campaign for nuclear power on the Canadian Plains. By the end of the evening, we had come round to the thought that perhaps the most important role for the arts is to create the poetry, music, dance, and images that invite us to re-enter the beauty and solace of the "more-than-human world" where all issues are played out.

sunset at Cherry Lake

That phrase "more-than-human world" comes from American eco-philosopher, David Abram and his book Spell of the Sensuous, for my money one of the most important books on culture and wildness to come out in the last twenty years. As I listened to people speaking about the arts and advocacy the other night, I thought about Abrams' book and how it might inform a rediscovery of the northern Great Plains by artists. Unlike those gathered at the Dunlop, many artists who live in this part of the world have not been able to encounter prairie places as they have say, wooded or mountainous places. There are many good reasons for that, some of which run deep in our culture as people of treed, parkland environments. The desert is never the easiest or most inviting of landscapes for a day of hiking with plein air easel. Yet, if are to continue living here, and find ways of living well, we will need artists and writers to show us the enchantments of this land. I think we have just really begun that work.

The first steps in building a culture of advocacy begin with going out to the wilds to make contact once again with the real and sensuous world in all of its complexity, diversity, and mystery.

When the evening was over, we talked a bit more informally and some of us carried the discussion on across the park at a local pub. By the time I went home I had an envelope covered with the names of artists, photographers, filmakers, and poets interested in making an expedition out to the Crown grasslands for a few days this summer. I am looking for possible locations and some help in getting this organized, so if you have an idea or some time to help out, send me an email at

camping at Grasslands National Park

Friday, April 17, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song Illustrated:
"A Canopy of Song"

this beautiful chestnut-collared longspur image courtesy of Alan MacKeigan

The title of this chapter comes from a phrase I have heard Stuart Houston use again and again in trying to describe the experience of standing on the prairie beneath a skyful of larking longspurs, Sprague's pipits, and lark buntings. It is one of those moments in nature that does not yield well to words, but the sense of a canopy made of song is helpful.

Stuart relates the story of how prairie naturalists came together to form the Saskatchewan Natural History Society in 1949, with Isabel Priestley of Yorkton leading the way. Here is some more history on this group, now known as Nature Saskatchewan, but still one of the best naturalist groups on the Great Plains.

Image courtesy of Jared Clarke

The bird profile that follows this chapter features my favourit buteo hawk, the Ferruginous. I have had several reports of Ferruginous Hawks returning to their nests in the past couple of weeks. They seem to come about the time the Richardson's ground squirrels emerge from their winter burrows.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

To Make a Prairie--Part IV, A Culture of Advocacy

Since the book came out a little more than a month ago, I have begun to hear about ranchers and grass farmers who are finding ways to raise their livestock while bringing their land back to health. Readers call and tell me about a man they know who is following the Holistic Range Management methods of Allan Savory or that a small group of producers in a local region have made the transition. (Here is a 2005 posting by prairie blogger, Claude-Jean Harel on a producer using these methods near Saltcoats, Sk.) Most of these landowners are not able to identify the birds on their land but they say they are seeing some native grasses and forbs return to their pastures and they are sure that the wildlife is benefiting.

These reports about the people who are raising our food are a source of hope, but just as important are the choices the rest of us make as consumers and engaged citizens. I sometimes catch myself thinking of the agricultural producer-consumer equation entirely within economic terms, forgetting that people are moved, inspired by more than financial incentives and dis-incentives. Any successes we have had on environmental issues in recent years--whether it is the recovery of the bald eagle, protection of whales, improved forestry methods, elimination of pesticides and other toxins--have come from advocacy, fervent defense of the otherwise defenseless.

Much of that leadership has happened in places other than the Great Plains, in larger centres where the population base has more readily fostered a culture of advocacy. Prairie people have, sometimes with good reason, been suspicious of the environmental movement, concerned that outsiders were going to be telling us what to do with our land. Traditional urban-based environmental advocacy doesn't work here, but what might be helpful would be a respectful alliance between people who produce our food--who after all want to do their best by the land they use--and the people who eat it. Not sure how exactly that plays out, but I have a hunch that a prairie-grown culture of advocacy might start with the voices of our artists, writers, and musicians.

In the mean time, I want to get out there this summer and visit some of these farms and ranches I have been hearing about--particularly grass farmers who are restoring land once under crop. If you know of any producers who are finding more ecologically sound ways to graze their land, drop me a line at I am making a list and it is getting longer all the time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song Illustrated:
"Waiting for the Pipit"

Photo with the kind permission of Stephen Davis.

"Waiting for the Pipit" is a chapter that introduces one of my favourite birds--the Sprague's pipit. The setting is Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Saskatchewan.

Poet Don McKay has joined me for a day of prairie birding. We stop in to visit Canadian Wildlife Service biologist, Stephen Davis and his pipit researchers on the pastures just east of the north end of Last Mountain Lake.

The first non-Aboriginal person to become aware of this most elusive of prairie birds was John James Audubon.

Audubon's gunners collected the first Sprague's pipit in June, 1843 on his Missouri River expedition. He described it as "a lark, small and beautiful."

Stephen Davis gave Don and I a close look at a male pipit that day after he captured one to band. Here is what one looks like in the hand.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Davis

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

To Make a Prairie: Part IV, Health Benefits of Grass-fed

Anyone who reads Grass,Sky, Song or this blog will see that I am suggesting that one of the things we can do for grassland birds is buy our meat, eggs, and dairy products from producers who feed their animals grass instead of grain. In the first two postings on this topic (March 15 and March 25) I described the environmental benefits of raising animals on grass alone--namely, if the dairy, eggs, and meat protein we consume come from animals that eat nothing but grass (and in the case of poultry, insects), there will be more support for producers to keep more land in grass, native and non-native, and less stimulus for growing grain to feed animals in feedlots and intensive livestock operations. If we could convert even a small percentage of the animal protein we consume in North America from grain-fed to grass-fed, there would be a correspondent increase in grassed land. That in turn can provide better habitat for birds that use grass to nest and forage and it helps reduce the amount of carbon that agriculture releases into the atmosphere.

But that is only half of the story. The other good news about grass-based agriculture is that it is much better for human health. I keep coming across new information on this topic, but one of the best explanations of how grain-fed animal produce has made us unhealthy appears in David Servan-Schreiber's book, Anticancer: A New Way of Life. On pages 65 to 68 of this international bestseller, Servan-Schreiber, an M.D. and cancer survivor, refers to work done by a team of French researchers who explain something he calls "the American paradox." The paradox was that while Americans' overall consumption of fats and total calories declined between 1976 and 2000, obesity increased dramatically. Even in children under one, the mass of fatty tissue doubled during a 20 year period. We typically blame lack of exercise and fast food for obesity in North America, but as the head of the French researchers, Girard Ailhaud, said, for infants "you can't blame McDonald's, snacking, TV, and lack of physical exercise." These children were still getting the same quantity of milk as infants but the quality had changed dramatically. Something was out of balance. Servan-Schreiber explains:

"Starting in the fifties, the demand for milk products and beef went up so much that farmers had to look for shortcuts. . . and reduce the grazing area needed to feed a 750-kilogram (1,600-pound) cow. Pastures were thus abandoned and replaced by battery farming. Corn, soy, and wheat, which have become the principal diet for cattle, contain practically no omega-3 fatty acids. To the contrary, these food sources are rich in omega-6s. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are called "essential" because the human body cannot make them. As a result, the quantity of omega-3s and omega-6s in our bodies stems directly from the content of the food we eat. In turn, the amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in our food depend on what the cows and chickens we eat have consumed in their feed. If they eat grass, then the meat, milk, and eggs they provide are perfectly balanced in omega-3s and omega-6s."

He goes on to explain the healthy push-pull tension between these two fatty acids when they are in balance in our bodies, and says that when the balance favours omega-6s--as it does in most people eating meat, dairy, and eggs from feedlot and industrial-farmed livestock--then we have trouble keeping the fat off and become more susceptible to cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Servan-Schreiber is merely one doctor making the case for pasture and grass-fed animals in our agriculture. Many other scientists are seeing the connection between grass-based agriculture and a healthy balance of fatty acids. In 2006, the Union of Concerned Scientists undertook the first comprehensive comparison of fat levels in beef and dairy products from conventionally raised and pasture-raised animals. Their report, Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating, presents the results of this analysis.

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