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20. What Animals Lived on Ohio Prairies? Described previously were the deer, elk, and bison that were seasonally attracted to the nutritious forage (“hay”) on prairies following a fire. A note, however, should be made about these animals.
Large Animals. Wildlife biologists regard deer and elk as “browsers,” animals that commonly strip bark and buds with their teeth from trees and shrubs. Deer and elk are not commonly thought to graze, to eat grass and forbs. When confined to wooded areas, they apparently are able to persist by browsing.
But a number of early 19th century pioneer writings tell of large numbers of white-tailed deer on Ohio prairies. Native American deer hunting with the use prairie fires is well-documented. Ohio deer grazed forbs (not grasses) on the prairie.
But the large ungulates (hoofed animals) could not survive the Ohio winter on prairies. Unlike the shortgrasses of the High Plains that retained nutritious seeds during the winter (food for giant winter herds of bison), Ohio prairie grasses lose all nutritive value in winter. Deer, elk, and bison were required to re-enter the forest each winter where they survived by browsing. They returned to the prairie only when it greened up in late spring, usually after a fire. Ohio prairies had large animals, but they left the prairie in the winter. Deer tended to remain near the forest edge of prairies, eating only forbs on the prairie.
Please note that Ohio had bison, but significantly, they played no discernable role in Ohio prairie ecology. There were never many bison in the state, unlike the High Plains where giant herds abounded. There are almost no archeological records of bison remains in Ohio, contrasted to almost ubiquitous site discoveries of white tailed deer and elk remains. Discount the bison as a significant Ohio prairie herbivore.
Other Animals. Ohio prairies were visited by most of the forest animals, including cougars, wolves, black bears, and others. None of these were characteristic prairie animals, only visitors.
Actually, the prairie was a pretty harsh environment, changing markedly from one season to the next. Few large animals could spend their lives there. Most were only visitors.
21. What Birds Were Found on Ohio Prairies? A good number of birds thrived on Ohio prairies. For brevity, only two will be described here.
The Greater Prairie Chicken. Like the prairie landscapes of other Midwestern states, Ohio’s large prairies originally had populations of the interesting greater prairie chicken. Sadly, this bird is now extirpated from Ohio and is declining in the few areas where it still survives. The survival of this species is not assured. It disappeared from Ohio in the early 20th century.
For a complete description of this superlative species, consult a proper life history. Just a few notes on this great prairie bird.
Prairie chickens are galliforms, birds related to chickens, quail, pheasants, pea fowl and the like. But unlike most galliforms, prairie chickens are able to fly great distances. Ohio’s prairie chickens probably flew over the forest canopy from one prairie area to another.
They are most famous for their spring mating routines. Male prairie chickens would gather on a lek, an open patch of prairie ground where males would ceremoniously strut and display for the affections of a female.
Because prairie chickens require large areas for their leks and home ranges, and because the Asian ring-necked pheasant tends to drive off prairie chickens, this beautiful bird is never likely to return to Ohio, even by intended means.
The American Turkey. In prairie states to the west, in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, for example, the quintessential, definitive prairie bird was, understandably, the prairie chicken. And prairie chickens were important and common Ohio prairie birds, too.
But the quintessential Ohio prairie bird was probably the turkey. After having been successfully restored to wooded parts of Ohio, the bird today is regarded as a forest animal. But historical accounts of Ohio prairies show that the species was extremely common on our native grasslands. Turkeys can be regarded as significant denizens of the original Ohio tallgrass prairie.
Turkeys thrived on Ohio prairies because they provided much of what turkeys needed for the growth of turkey chicks. Turkey chicks (poults) need ample amounts of insects for good growth. They are also vulnerable to predation as they search for food. Poults in the forest don’t find as many insects as are found in the prairie grasses. Prairies have ample insect food for protein-demanding poults.
Additionally, the young poults can remain hidden beneath the prairie grasses as they search for food. Prairies are ideal habitats for large flocks of wild turkeys.
There is a pioneer’s account in Erie County of Native Americans creating clever split-rail turkey traps. These were set on the prairie and baited with seeds or some other food. The trap was left open and un-set for some time, allowing the wary turkeys to get used to entering the trap. Then the hinged door was set and triggered by the no-longer wary flock.
Large flocks of turkeys were commonly seen on Ohio prairies. Like the large mammals, they had to retreat to the forest for the winter. But when the prairies greened up in the spring, the grasslands were a bountiful turkey nursery area.
Turkeys may also have played an important role in prairie ecology. A few small prairie plant species are known today to persist only in areas that have disrupted, scratched soil. Several species of Hypericum (native St. John’s Wort) apparently can’t persist unless soil is scratched open for re-seeding. Turkeys are famous for scratching soil in large patches, searching for soil-borne seeds and insects. This soil-working habit may be a significant ecological element in the natural prairie.
22. How Does the Prairie Change During the Year? Few natural habitats change more dramatically throughout a year than a tallgrass prairie. To fully understand this, readers are encouraged to visit a local prairie and observe at hand these remarkable changes. But what happens seasonally is outlined below.
The Prairie in Late Winter and Early Spring. For this, we’ll presume that the prairie has not yet been burned. It’s sitting quietly in general dormancy after the winter snows and rains. The tall vegetation has now dried, having been pressed low by winter rains and snow. The prairie has taken on a weak straw color. It appears altogether dead. The only living plant parts are the hidden roots and stem bases, and the life therein is only at the cellular level. The prairie appears utterly spent and lifeless.
But on a warm (say 50°F), slightly windy late March day, our prairie will be set on fire. The team of prairie burners has acquired their OEPA and Division of Forestry burning permits, have informed the local fire department and sheriff of their activities, have donned the appropriate fire-resistant clothing, have formulated and discussed the written fire plan, have checked the US Weather Service’s Fire Weather Website, have their equipment in hand, and with great excitement, are ready to re-create the ancestral dominant natural element of the prairie, a vegetation-consuming landscape fire.
At a downwind corner, a small corner is ignited. For only an instant the dead grass smolders. But quickly, flames erupt from the dead grasses, and there is no turning back. The prairie, albeit only in a small edge, is afire. Much of the rest of the burn is in the hands of natural forces, mostly the speed and direction of the winds, and the size and scope of the flammable prairie fuels.
The fire has been set on the downwind side of the prairie. The flames, then, have to burn slowly against the wind into unburned vegetation, a "backfire." At the base of the flames the heat is intense, burning anything dry. The dead prairie is wholly consumed.
As the flames back away from the burned area, the ground is covered with a light film of black, dusty soot. A few scattered old mouse nests continue to glow and smoke as the flame front retreats. A gentle gust of wind tosses the feather-light prairie ash.
If the prairie looked dead before the fire, it looks even less viable now. Nothing above ground persists. Bare soil is universally exposed. A few seedling trees or shrubs have been incinerated and only singed remnants of their stems remain. The visible prairie is gone. Even to those of us who have seen this numerous times, we always lean upon our prairie burn rakes and ponder the apparent destruction we have wrought. The prairie’s weak, late-winter straw color has been replaced by the less-inviting fire-ash black.
Mid- to Late April. But as the bare soil is warmed by the ever-higher spring sun, the prairie phoenix begins its marvelous ascent. One warm late April day, amidst the blackened soil, the first small, green prairie leaves erupt. In a week, the blackness is replaced by rapidly growing young grass leaves. By early May the entire landscape is green with dense, low foliage. The prairie year has begun apace. Only the frost of autumn will stop the prairie’s growth.
The first plants to emerge in profusion are the grasses. But scattered among them are first leaves and stems of the wildflowers (properly called forbs). By the end of May, a number of small, short, quick-growing species have exploited the un-shaded spring sunshine, and by June, these species have flowered and are going to seed. As the prairie grows taller, these short, early species decline.
Early Summer. By late May and into June, the prairie is in full growth. The fire-exposed bare ground is no longer visible, now covered with expanding leaves and stems. As the season progresses, more species of forbs rise above the low grasses to flower and attract pollinators.
By the end of June, the prairie is about two feet tall.
Mid Summer. By July, the tallgrass prairie begins to reveal its name. The grasses begin to get legitimately tall. Until July, the grasses appear to be growing only as long leaves rising from the soil. But in late July or early August, distinct, erupting stems appear. A number of 3- and 4-ft mid-summer forbs bloom in profusion. The prairie is vibrantly alive and growing. Every two or three weeks a new set of beautiful prairie forbs come into bloom. Those that previously bloomed are subsumed and overtaken by the lengthening grasses. Growth is profuse.
Late Summer. In August and September the prairie matures in botanical glory. In August the tall grasses begin to flower (yes, grasses have flowers, although small). The big bluestem flowerhead assumes its turkey-foot shape, and Indiangrass flower-heads create a wonderful golden color. The unique tall prairie forbs rise above even the 6-ft grasses. The 8-ft naked stems of prairie dock begin to flower aside the 6- and 7-ft tall coreopsis. In disturbed areas along the edge some large clumps of sawtooth and giant sunflowers explode in a mass of insect-attracting yellow flowers. The prairie is in a final explosion of color and biomass.
Early Autumn. As the nights cool and the days shorten, photosynthesis is no longer efficient. The prairie begins to prepare for the long cold winter. The summer green is slowly lost as leaf-borne carbohydrates are translocated down to roots and rhizomes. By October the prairie takes on a golden-straw color. Grass and fall flower seeds begin to mature. Birds land on the large flowers of the prairie composites and begin the extract their maturing seeds. The prairie season is coming to an end.
Late Autumn. By November the prairie is dormant. Its life has retreated to roots and rhizomes. Stems are still erect, but the many leaves have shriveled.
Winter. Rains, snow, and ice lay heavily on the dead vegetation, pressing it down. Insects and other arthropods have retreated to plant stems or underground habitats. They, too, are in a state of dormancy. There is little life on the winter prairie. Voles (Microtis pennsylvanicus) continue to forage and construct nests.
Until the spring fires, the prairie is lifeless. Another prairie season has passed.