Wisconsin Nature

Prairies and Predators

The mixed tall grass prairie at Schlitz Audubon is a stunning sight in the summer months. With Indian grass flowers dangling like chandeliers and big bluestem swaying overhead, these grasses provide structure in the prairie for a variety of wildlife, much of which tends to go unnoticed.

In the summer, the leaves of big bluestem are food for the meadow vole. As the seeds of these grasses ripen and fall to the ground in autumn, they provide another food source to last the voles throughout the winter. At the end of the year this vegetation dies back and the tall stems fall over. This creates systems of tunnels and corridors over the ground that can persist for years.

Hunting in the Passageways

You will find the northern short tailed shrew – one of the few venomous mammals in existence – under these grasses. They can eat up to three times their body weight every day. A large part of their diet consists of worms, insects, and snails that are common among the vegetation of the prairies. But they can also find more rewarding prey in these passageways. Since their eyesight is poor and they are primarily nocturnal hunters, they use echolocation to find meadow voles to bite, paralyze, and eat.

Some animals have a unique way of tracking their prey. Voles and shrew may stay well hidden, but since these rodents mark their trails with urine to claim their territory, they create a map over the prairie. This leads raptors like the American Kestrel directly to them. These birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, making urine trails clearly visible. They hover above the prairie like a helicopter and wait for the rodents to reveal themselves along these trails. Then they swoop down and use their feet to capture and kill their prey. Kestrels are opportunistic hunters and will eat what’s available to them – they also happen to be one of the largest consumers of grasshoppers.

A Prairie Plant Used for Healing

Grasshoppers consume the leaves of common boneset, a wet prairie plant that can be found at the end of the new accessible boardwalk. Pairs of opposing leaves clasp the four-foot tall hairy stem, making it look as though the stem grew straight through the long diamond shaped leaves. The unique name for this plant comes from its medicinal uses for a flu-like illness that causes pain in bones. At the top of the plant many clusters of tiny, star-shaped, white flowers bloom. They issue a lovely, delicate scent, which attracts moth species that pollinate the flowers.

Some of our most charismatic flowers of the prairie bloom late in the summer. In August and September, the grasses are maturing and exhibiting a rainbow of shades in their stems and leaves. That’s when golden flowers begin to pepper the landscape – goldenrods, coneflowers, black-eyed susan, and sunflowers can be seen on any given hike. At up to ten feet tall, the interestingly named Jerusalem Artichoke towers over the other prairie plants. A member of the sunflower family, its showy blooms provide nectar and pollen that attract many types of bees and other pollinators. Some moth and butterfly species, like the painted lady, feed on the foliage.

Our prairie boardwalk, the Gateway Trail, makes the charm of this habitat accessible to all of the Center’s visitors. Being elevated above the ground allows wildlife to utilize the expanse of the prairie, undisturbed. So walk the path and take some time to observe those relationships that so often go unnoticed.