Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Prairie Birds of the Cornbelt
Nature Bulletin No. 305   May 5, 1984
Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The Ideal way to get acquainted with the birds of the open fields and prairies is to take a team of horses and raise a crop of corn. Birds are not afraid of horses and a farmer or his boy can watch them, close up, day after day. Unlike tractors, horses guide themselves most of the time and the driver has plenty of chances to look and listen -- especially while plowing.

The small animal life uncovered by a freshly turned furrow offers a free lunch for birds. Several sorts of typical ground-nesting birds are loined by blackbirds, cowbirds, robins, and even the wary crows, from nearby hedgerows, farmsteads and woodlands to form a flying, running, hopping parade behind the plow. They and the prairie birds rush to grab earthworms. cutworms, white grubs, beetles and ants.

Early on quiet mornings at this time of year, farmers In some localities still hear the deep resonant "boom-ah-B-O-O-M, boom-ah-B-O-O-M" of the Prairie Chicken cocks in some distant pasture where these chunky chicken-like birds strut in front of their hens. They are seldom seen except when they or, later, their half-grown young flush with a roar of wings from some fencerow or stubble field.

The Upland Plovers, after spending the winter on the pampas of South America, come to us in late April and feed on grasshoppers, cutworms and other injurious insects until they migrate south in late summer. This bird has a brown body a little bigger than a robin's, and a long neck and long legs like a wading bird but it is never seen in the water. The female lays four brown-and-gray spotted eggs in a small hollow hidden under a canopy of grass -- a custom of many prairie birds. During courtship they flutter and soar, often at great heights, and have the habit of holding their wings high for a moment after alighting. The song is a prolonged, quavering whistle given either while standing on a fence post or, like so many other prairie birds, on the wing.

The noisy little long-legged Killdeer calls its name, even on moonlit nights, from early spring until autumn. Across its white neck and breast are two black bands. It lays four blotched pointed eggs on bare ground, often in the middle of a cornfield or a patch of gravel. Like most prairie birds, the mother tries to lead an intruder away from her eggs or young, by crying and floundering away as if crippled. If successful, she suddenly recovers and circles back.

The raspy-voiced Night Hawk, or Bull Bat, which lays its two eggs on bare ground or rock but has also learned to nest on flat rooftops in cities, is another bird of the prairies. It is neither a hawk nor a bat but a cousin of the swallows and, like them, feeds on flying insects. Performing for a female, the male rises high in the sky, then dives with half-closed wings until, near the ground, he swoops up with a resounding buzz of his wing pinions.

Almost all of our original prairies in the Cornbelt have yielded to the plow but many prairie birds survive on hayfields and cultivated land -- all friends of the farmer. He prizes the ground-nesting Marsh Hawk, a bird of tireless flight as it skims low over the fields hunting mice. He hears the songs of the Eastern and the Western Meadowlarks, with their yellow breasts and black bibs; the Dickcissel, marked like a miniature meadowlark: the black-and-white Bobolink with its medley of bubbling notes: and most remarkable of all, the tinkling twitter from a fluttering speck far overhead -- the Prairie Horned Lark.

There is no finer music than the Ploughman's Symphony.

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