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Birds & Birding Regional Birder

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Great Plains
January 2017

The central region of the U.S. known as the Great Plains is a grassland, a savannah, a prairie, which at one time was the North American equivalent of the Serengeti. In fact, the biomass of wildlife, particularly bison, was greater than that on the Serengeti. The various kinds of grasses, shortgrass, midgrass, and tallgrass are dictated by the amount of moisture they receive annually. Ecologically, the Great Plains is still primarily flat, somewhat dry grasslands, but it has been greatly altered by the plow, barbed wire and civilization. Today, the Great Plains, as seen from the air, is a patchwork of farms, dotted with small woodlots and potholes, small villages, towns, and a few major metropolitan centers.

Backyard Birds

Common backyard birds in the Great Plains include the eastern bluebird, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, house finch, barn swallow, purple martin, blue jay, downy woodpecker, northern flicker, mourning dove, ring-necked pheasant, killdeer, dark-eyed junco, song sparrow, yellow warbler, cedar waxwing, brown-headed cowbird, red-winged blackbird, gray catbird, house wren, and mallard duck.

Regional Birds

Yet, the birdlife of the Great Plains is still a large group of species that has adapted to life on the prairies, where they find food, water and cover primarily in the grassland ecology. When the bison roamed the region, the brown-headed cowbird was among the most common bird. It followed the herds, laying its eggs in other birds' nests, and then moved on with the herds, leaving the host birds to raise its young. The brown-headed cowbird is still common in the Great Plains, but since the bison have gone, they have extended their range well beyond the grasslands.

Other common plains species include killdeer, northern harrier, prairie falcon, American kestrel, sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chicken, short-eared and burrowing owls, horned lark, western meadowlark, lark bunting, bobolink, dickcissel, loggerhead shrike, eastern and western kingbirds, Brewer's and yellow-headed blackbirds, orchard oriole, common yellowthroat and yellow warbler, many grassland sparrows, snow bunting, Lapland longspur, and many ducks and shorebirds in the potholes.

What's happening in your backyard this month
  • Peak of winter bird feeding season; greatest number and varieties of winter birds are present.
  • Owls are singing: great horned and barred owls are hooting; screech-owls are whinnying.
  • Sign of spring as American goldfinches show first yellow in winter plumages.
  • As storms approach, birds feed more heavily in anticipation of severe weather.
What to do in your backyard this month
  • Warm bird bath water for birds to drink.
  • Collect discarded Christmas trees to create instant cover for birds.
  • Put up one bird house for birds to roost in during severe weather.
  • Keep feeders filled and free of ice and snow; feed suet to maintain birds' high energy.