Boldly patterned bobolinks Grand greater prairie chickens Essay

Boldly patterned bobolinks. Grand greater prairie chickens. Amazing aerial vocalists like Sprague’s pipits and of course, our beloved eastern and western meadowlarks. They’re all birds of the Nebraska prairie and, while the prairie is important to them—for home and habitat, food and fledging—they are important to us. During this Year of the Bird, let’s look a little closer at our disappearing grassland species and not only celebrate them, but step up and save them. Since the earliest painters and writers, people have been depicting and writing about birds.

Longing to soar with them; to share the sky with them, if only for a moment. We come close in our jets but with much less grace and so much more wasted power. We marvel at their migratory prowess, somehow finding their way year after year after year through storms and droughts, many times returning to find their homes and habitat destroyed after traveling astounding distances to return to them.

For example, the bobolink—a prairie parcel specialist—flies over 12,000 miles round trip to breed here and then winter in South America. We go wide-eyed and warm investigating a feather up close, astounded by the tiny hooks and barbs that retain its shape, realizing we have something (our fingers and toenails) in common with these amazing structures. And we take joy and comfort in watching them along the trails of places like Spring Creek Prairie, Nine Mile Prairie or Pioneers Park Nature Center. And yet… we are still letting many species go extinct. We are allowing important habitat to be lost to development and necessary water and soil to be polluted. We allow our cats outdoors even though we have feeders right next door, or possibly even in our own yards. (Notice here I said “our”; I’m far from perfect.)

Birds Matter and not just during the Year of the Bird

But I ask this: If you have seen a prairie chicken dance, can you ever imagine saying to your child or grandchild, “Wow! I wish you could have seen a prairie chicken. They were so amazing.” Can you fathom having to tell your nieces and nephews or the schoolchildren you teach, “The common loon had one of the most beautiful and haunting songs ever heard in nature. I wish you could have heard it.” I hope not. Birds matter. Not just to the natural balance of things, but to our souls… to our humanity. Research shows that a shut-in senior or a soldier suffering from PTSD finds joy and healing in watching a feathered friend frolic in a bird bath or soar by their window. And it’s not just birds, but all of our outside natural world. The trees and shrubs the birds perch on and nest in matter. The insects and berries they eat matter. So, for the rest of 2018, to celebrate the Year of the Bird, why not take that extra step. To help the diminutive grasshopper sparrow keep singing on our Nebraska prairies—consider using less plastic. To keep stamping and dancing grounds for prairie chickens across the state, support a local conservation organization by volunteering with a community science project. And plant native plants. Our birds depend on them and we, whether we know it or not, depend on our birds—to make us smile, to move our souls, and to make every year the year of the bird.

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