Learning from The Land: Territory
Greetings from Prairie School East! I’ve come to sit at the feet of this patch of burnt and re-energized Iowa prairie for a lesson on Saturday morning, March 13. Yep, one week ago now, as the Denver area was bracing for The Snowpocalypse. Yipes!
This Iowa prairie lesson begins with light, particularly sunlight; and color. I’ve gotten up and out early. The sun has not quite hit the horizon. It will be fairly dark at this very hour tomorrow after our switch to daylight savings time. On the way to the burnt patch I see a bunch of large dark birds moving slowly around in a field. Turkeys! Yep! On their lek or courtship grounds––two toms and several hens. Not a bird we’re likely to see on The Land, but we may well find it just west along the brushy Coal Creek drainage. I stop for them because they are great beings. I take out my camera because of the light. Like all birds here and all the birds on the Land, the colors that we perceive them to be are produced by the interaction of two coloring systems – one structural and one chemical. Structural color results from the scattering of reflected light from an impossibly intricate feather design, while chemical color relies on a palette of pigments. Cool, huh?! And in this light, these toms can really show off their full color palette for one another and the hens.
Arriving at my destination I have turkeys and light and color on my mind, but territory as well. And all around this charred tallgrass patch there is more to take in from blackbirds and killdeer. Redwing blackbirds hang out near water sources, so they may come to feed at The Land, but they’ll stake out their nesting territories along Coal Creek’s marshes. Their scientific name, Agelaius phoeniceus derives from Greek, meaning, roughly, “scarlet flock member.” Check out the shiny onyx body with the crazy scarlet epaulets! And just imagine what inspired, evolutionary artistry must be involved. Whew! Few common birds of spring are as striking. I’m reminded as well about how much wild music these guys make this time of year— talking to potential partners and warning off rivals; and how much regional variation in bird songs and calls there can be within one species. These redwingers have a distinct Midwestern accent, like mine, I guess. Colorado redwingers sound quite a bit different.
The show-topper this morning, though, is the killdeer. There are at least six killdeer sprinting about the prairie surface; around last year’s grass stalks, and through the new green shoots. And oh man, do they make of lot of noise with their sharp piping: “Keekadee, keekadee, keekadee!” The volume seems to increase when one of these striking, black-and-white striped plovers takes to the air, flying at high speed, zigging and zagging, making big circles around the outline of the prairie. Time to stake out territory like everyone else. We could certainly see killdeer on or around The Land. Unlike many other shorebirds, they are also common in dry areas. They are fascinating and hardy little kindreds. They lay their speckled eggs in a shallow scrape on bare ground. They are famous for luring predators and other threats away from their nests by running around with a bright rust-colored wing bent as if broken. And perhaps most remarkably, killdeer chicks are able to walk––or sprint–– away from the nest as soon as their wings dry. They look like tiny fluff balls running around on long toothpicks. Perfectly adorable to the human eye for sure!
Finally, what’s emerged today is a persistent question of territory: Is The Land ours to share with its 24/7 residents or is theirs to share with us? Hmm… Amen.