This spring 2016 semester, several students in the Sustainability Studies Program here at Roosevelt will report and reflect upon their sustainability-related internship experiences. Here’s another post from Tiffany Mucci, a senior SUST major interning in plant conservation and ecological restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, about 50 miles SW of Chicago.
In my last blog entry, I offered a glimpse inside the long and laborious task of seed cleaning at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Once the Clipper is unplugged and the milkweed is de-fluffed, there comes a day which Midewin’s staff and volunteers look forward to every year: seed-mixing day. They have affectionately termed this part of the restoration project “making a prairie” because it is something like following a recipe from a cookbook. In this case, the recipes are intended for six different restoration areas, and within these six areas the seed formulas are further customized to subcategories of soil type.
On seed-mixing day, scales, buckets, barrels and tarps are set out as the massive seed collection is divided amongst its respective destinations, one species at a time. With enough helping hands, this task is completed in a matter of several hours, and the mixtures are stored in barrels until it’s time to broadcast them into the fields – which comes sooner than one might expect.
We broadcast seeds by hand, beginning in late January. Broadcasting requires us to plod through tall grasses, dried up and stiffened from the cold season, as we disperse the seeds directly onto the snow and frozen ground. Seeding the prairie in the dead of winter has its advantages, mainly because the seeds benefit from a period of cold. Exposure to the freezing and thawing of winter and early spring helps to soften the seed coat, and this freeze-thaw cycle also aids in drawing the seeds into contact with the soil.
When we picture those vast, rolling tracts of monochrome grassland, it might be hard to imagine the finer variances in soil and plant communities across the ecosystem as a whole, but variation in soil types is common on Midewin’s restoration sites. There are dryer soils, such as in sandy and upland areas; wet soils or wetlands, which retain high levels of moisture; and mesic, a more moderate soil-type, which holds onto water for a short period of time as it gradually drains. Only a slight depression or rise in this landscape can make all the difference in the moisture content of the soil.
Many years ago, this posed a problem for local farmers who needed a more uniform environment to grow crops. In order to remove excess water from the land, they laid field tiles, which served as a drainage system. Of course, these field tiles were excavated as part of Midewin’s prairie project, and it wasn’t long after their removal that natural wetlands reappeared on the landscape. Indeed, entering the Grant Creek North restoration area, the land appears fairly unchanging at first glance. However, hiking several acres further into the site reveals frozen-over ponds where wetlands have formed.
While each seed recipe is tailored to the soil-types within the restoration sites, there is one grass in particular that Midewin’s staff have given intentional ubiquity to: little bluestem (Andropogon scoparius). Restoration staff member Grace Wu explains that the reason being for including so much little bluestem is that it’s a good filler grass and plays nicely with others, so to speak. Unlike its more aggressive counterparts, big bluestem and Indian grass, little bluestem can be planted to keep invasive species at bay without competing with other native grasses and wildflowers. Little bluestem is also pretty tolerant of different soil types, all in all making it a prime candidate for prairie restoration.
Due to the complexity of factors in any restoration project, it is normal to encounter dilemmas involving the native and non-native features of a given landscape. The site in question has usually already suffered profound ecological and/or mechanical damage over a long period of time.
In Midewin’s case, the land had endured well over a century’s worth of transformation since the arrival of settlers in the mid-1800s (and even longer, if we consider the human activity predating settlement within Illinois’ territory). Accordingly, the exotic flora and fauna have had as much time to make themselves at home and assimilate as part of the modified ecosystem. Such is the situation regarding the prevalence of Osage orange trees on Midewin’s property. Osage orange trees are native to some southern parts of the United States, but made their way north when farmers took to planting them as natural borders and fence-lines. Many of these Osage orange hedgerows and their propagates are still standing today.
In restoring the Illinois prairie, one’s first inclination might be to immediately do away with the Osage orange trees; they’re non-native to this region and consequently, are a hindrance in returning the landscape to its pre-settlement condition. Be that as it may, a bird of ecological significance, the loggerhead shrike, has found usefulness in these old trees. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website describes the loggerhead shrike as, “a songbird with a raptor’s habits,” which “skewer their kills on thorns or barbed wire or wedge them into tight places for easy eating” (Cornell, 2015). The folks at Midewin have discovered that resident loggerheads like to use the thorns of the Osage orange trees as a means to impale and hold their prey.
Having this bird as a Midewin denizen could prove to be very important to the species. According to the 2010 “List of Birds Observed at the MNTP,” the loggerhead shrike is recorded not only as an Illinois Theatened Species and a Federal Candidate Species (due to the bird’s declining numbers), but it is also a Confirmed Breeder here at the park, which is all the more reason to cater to this feathered friend’s needs. So, for the greater purpose of “making a prairie,” the Osage orange trees can stay.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2015). All about birds: Loggerhead shrike. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Loggerhead_Shrike/lifehistory
SUST senior Tiffany Mucci is spending her spring 2016 semester interning at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington IL, working with staff and volunteers in their restoration program. During the May 2015 section of SUST 390, she authored this creative non-fiction essay about Midewin. This year Mucci is also co-editing the new Writing Urban Nature project for the Roosevelt Urban Sustainability Lab and serving as Assistant Editor of the SUST at RU blog.