Grassland Birds: An Expression of the Possible

Morgan Spiehs
September 27, 2018

It’s 4 a.m. and Forsberg and I are on the road to the Crane Trust south of Wood River, Nebraska. I’ve visited the Crane Trust twice before this morning: once for a brief school-sanctioned plunge into the Platte River with my classmates sophomore year, and again a few months ago to watch Sandhill Cranes migrating (for the first time). I grew up 15 miles north of the Trust, a non-profit organization maintaining habitat for migratory birds. However, I am not well-versed in the activities occurring on the organization’s land. Once, while driving east on I-80 I did a double-take at the bison 50 yards from my car. The Crane Trust reintroduced the native species months before. Until today, that was the only Crane Trust related anecdote I could offer.

We’re here to visit a team of five researchers, all women, who monitor 10 nets –which remind me of the volleyball variety­– used to catch and then study grassland birds. There are four such sites on the Trust’s land. The gathered data paints a picture of the health among the birds, how many there are in the area and also to gauge potential future numbers. Lead scientist Nicole Arcilla conducted this research last year and hopes the project continues for at least five more.

Maddie Sutton checks for birds entangled in one of ten mist nests at a Crane Trust research site near Wood River, Nebraska, on Monday, July 16, 2018. Photo by Morgan Spiehs.

Birds depending on grasslands are among the most rapidly declining bird species in the country. Today, these species are threatened by loss of habitat to human expansion and the thwarting of natural processes needed for flourishing prairie. The history of the land we stand on this morning illustrates these threats. More than twenty years ago, crops grew here instead of grass. In the mid-1990s, the Crane Trust purchased it and restored the land to native prairie where these birds evolved to thrive.

Before releasing them back to the prairie, the researchers jot down a bird’s specifications, assess their health, attach an aluminum band to one leg and snap a photo. Banding marks the birds for future researchers. Though the rate researchers track down banded birds is under three percent, Arcilla says the reward proves significant. A different tracking mechanism, which Arcilla describes as “like a backpack,” revealed the path of one tallgrass prairie dweller, the bobolink, which included Florida, Cuba and the Amazon basin before returning to the Great Plains. I’ll never again call a bird “cute” without wondering if I’ve snubbed their integrity (even if it’s wearing a backpack).

Maddie Sutton exposes the brood patch of a house wren caught while researching birds using mist nets. Songbirds develop brood patches while incubating their eggs. Shedding feathers allows more efficient heat transfer from the bird to their eggs. Photo by Morgan Spiehs.

Arcilla’s team fills a gap in research; the best studied birds are on the East and West Coasts, and few test sites exist where grassland birds and bison intermingle, as is the case at the Crane Trust.

Grasslands are disturbance-dependent ecosystems. Before European settlement, herds of grazing animals –like the millions of bison stomping the ground and chomping vegetation– roamed the Great Plains, and periodic flooding as well as habitual fires fostered a sea of grass. Native Americans largely did not disrupt these processes. In fact, they deftly aided them. Without these disturbances, trees and shrubs establish and grasslands become woodlands. Today, grassland habitats –like those at the Crane Trust– require prescribed fires, chemical spraying to kill invasive plants and tilling excessive vegetation along the river.

I’m floored by what I see and hear. It’s not even 7 a.m., and I’m caught off guard in feeling this mystified. Birds native to the area I grew up in are dwindling faster in number compared to other places and there’s less knowledge about them compared to other places? I imagine a much younger Morgan hearing these words and seeing these scientists. I hope she would think this is important, that she would wonder, “Why are they dwindling here of all places?” and “I grew up here. Could I help these birds since others help on the coasts?” If she saw five women asking these questions, she might have been able to see herself doing it, too.

Nicole Arcilla, far right, and her team of researchers record details about grassland birds caught among ten nearby mist nets. Photo by Morgan Spiehs.

The researchers take turns venturing to each net, checking for snared birds. Once, after letting a bird free, Arcilla sticks her palms together and slightly bows as the bird returns to the prairie. “We’re losing far more species than we’re saving,” she says. Take that globetrotting bobolink. As their grassland habitat disappears, their populations declined in the U.S. by 65 percent since the ‘60s.1 But Arcilla doesn’t reduce bird conservation work to this metric alone. She suggests one of her favorite articles to me: “Beyond Value: Biodiversity and the Freedom of the Mind” by biologist N.J. Collar.

Nicole Arcilla, left, and Maddie Sutton process information about a grassland bird caught in a nearby mist net. Birds depending on grasslands are among the most rapidly declining bird species in the country as they’re threatened by loss of habitat to human expansion and the thwarting of natural processes needed for flourishing prairie. Photo by Morgan Spiehs.

When people pose the question “What good are birds?”, the answers provided often don’t sit well with Arcilla. I assume this adage is used as a title for many presentations and website pages meant for a layperson. Many answers, including “birds are indicator species,” assume birds’ well-being should be directly valued by their contribution to humans’ well-being. Well, birds roamed the earth far before humans came around. Pondering the worth of birds and reasoning their existence worthy as first and foremost a measure of our own may be speaking out of turn.

Collar argues reasons like “species indicate the health of our environment” are true but demeaning “because at heart we all know that they do not capture the depth of feeling that motivates us in our interventions and endeavors, and therefore do not reflect why ultimately any of us really care about biodiversity.”2

Maddie Sutton unsnarls a house wren from a mist net. Before setting her free, the researchers attach a uniquely numbered aluminum band to the bird’s leg and record the sex, age, weight and other measurements. Researchers perform this process on each netted bird in an effort to better understand bird population demographics in response to habitat and climate change. Photo by Morgan Spiehs.

Before his death, a Japanese businessman chose for his possessions, including the world’s most expensive painting at the time (a Van Gogh), to be cremated along with him.3 Humans of the world were troubled because, as Collar points out, art exists as a cultural inheritance to all of us regardless of who owns it.4 Art is valuable as it can be bought and sold, but invaluable (as a Van Gogh) due to its societal influence and therefore can’t be replaced.5 Nature is the same. No population should accept the eradication of a species as those species cannot be replaced and belong to no one.6

Biodiversity offers the same influence as art: “Fulfilment, excitement, beauty, pleasure, poetry, magic, grace,” Collar says.7 As I read the line, “Biodiversity is an expression of the possible,” I think of a bobolink leaving the Platte Valley prairie, sights set on the Amazon.8 “Celebrating the possible is the fundament of life. The celebration ultimately takes place in the most important and distinctive of places, the human mind, that indefinable space where the capacity to contemplate and wonder allows us the measure of ourselves in the universe. Only the freedom of the mind can bring us what we look on as fulfillment.”9

An American Goldfinch once again finds itself caught in a mist net before researchers release him. Photo by Morgan Spiehs.

To me, the expanse separating the house I grew up in and the Crane Trust is wider than fifteen miles. The house, surrounded by rows of corn and soybeans, represents value based on uniformity. One species, and one species only, intends to occupy the identical crop rows between the roads at every one mile span. This amount of consistency and order, possible because these fields fill a valley, enables industrial livelihoods. To explore here is to explore a factory floor. I didn’t spend much time outside as a child. For miles –past my yard, past the gravel driveway– existed rows and rows of the same corn stalks multiplied by millions. With the exception of our farm cats and St. Bernard, small black birds on power lines are the only fauna I remember other than toads, which were plentiful for many years but have all but disappeared. These memories, combined with my gaining knowledge of disappearing grasslands and all the biodiversity that comes with it, as well as acknowledging what I consider an otherwise charmed upbringing, are difficult for me to reconcile.

When I was 22 I started wandering around outside, quickly realizing what I’d missed out on spending so many hours indoors. I studied bighorn sheep scaling mountain faces, cranes flying to the same spot they have for millions of years, and the continent’s only aquatic songbirds diving into rivers for grub. I’m inspired by nature in the same way as those who study the textures left behind by Van Gogh’s brush. I wonder how each ecosystem inhabitant supports another, how the geologic features affect their movements, and how they’ve evolved over millennia to evade death and live another day. This amount of diversity and wild space encourages my mind to widen. To explore places like the Crane Trust is to explore, as Collar says, what’s possible.

“The diminishment of nature is the diminishment of man. Extinction is the negation of the possible; it creates poverty in the mind. Our capacity to experience, to imagine, to contemplate, erodes with the erosion of nature, and with it we forfeit piecemeal — landscape by landscape, site by site, species by species — the freedom of mind which yet we cherish as ultimately the greatest feature of our human identity.”10




1. “Bobolink: Life History,” All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, accessed July 16, 2018,
2. N.J. Collar, “Beyond Value: Biodiversity and the Freedom of the Mind,” Global Ecology & Biogeography 12 (2003): 266,
3. Jonathon Watts, “Japanese put lost art back on sale,” The Guardian, August 20, 1999,
4. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 268.
5. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 268.
6. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 268.
7. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 268.
8. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 268.
9. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 268.
10. Collar, “Biodiversity,” 269.



PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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