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Understated birds reflect nature of prairie landscape

A clay-colored sparrow, without the hype and flash of a tropical bird, mirrors the sober prairie landscape. Keith Corliss

Not surprisingly, the most recent issue of Living Bird News features a bird photograph on its cover, two birds actually. Captured by photographer Tim Laman, the stunning shot depicts a pair of twelve-wired birds-of-paradise. The male's upper half is a resplendent jet black, the rest seemingly dipped in lemon-yellow paint. Coral legs and stoplight-red eyes complete the look while its 12 long thin tail plumes make it appear as if the tropical bird is a Christmas ornament constructed in someone's craft shop.

Very few North American birds can approach the sheer gaudiness of most tropical ones. In fact, if we were to stand our continent's avifauna up to that of the rest of the world, ours would seem, well, pretty subdued, utilitarian even. Our ruby-throated hummingbird, while beautiful in its own right, pales when matched against a male marvelous spatuletail of northern Peru. Our black-billed magpie is pretty cool, but Central America's resplendent quetzal is amazing. Also, can our sharp-tailed grouse hold up against western China's golden pheasant? Not really, at least visually.

Focus closer and consider the bird life normally found within North Dakota. Over the Thanksgiving weekend I found myself on a walk in the Phoenix, Ariz., area and encountered one of the crown jewels of North American birds, a male vermillion flycatcher. The head and breast of this six-inch bird gleams with a red so unimaginably bright, it nearly hurts the eyes. But it's a southwest species not seen here. We must settle for the olive gray of willow and least flycatchers.

There's a valid reason northern prairie birds appear drab when compared to those found throughout the rest of the world's biomes. It's the same reason most of the songs of our prairie birds are comparatively quiet or even insect-like. Simply, a clay-colored sparrow nesting in wide open Kidder County, North Dakota, has very little incentive to be loud, either aurally or visually. If it were, it would find itself being located regularly by predators wishing to eat it.

Compare our prairie landscape to an equatorial forest. Beneath the lush canopy of greenery, the sun scarcely reaches the ground. Plant growth is so heavy a person must hack their way through. Blocked by heavy foliage in every direction, visibility is not measured in miles like on a prairie; it's feet at the most. Under such conditions a bird wishing to establish a nesting territory or find a mate must necessarily be colorful and loud. To make contact with others of your kind in the midst of incredibly dense circumstances, a creature has to somehow make its presence known. Thus, the bold brazen coloration of scarlet macaws and the loud songs of diminutive bay wrens become apparent.

Leaving birds aside, a person could make an argument suggesting the North Dakota landscape itself is pretty lackluster, even by American standards. Nowhere are rugged snow-capped peaks, cold clear mountain streams, the grand majesty of giant sequoia trees, deep multi-hued rock canyons, or ocean waves washing onto sandy beaches.

No, instead of take-your-breath-away vistas, we North Dakotans must find equanimity in landscapes with broad wind-blown shoulders, in burnt-orange sunsets, in a mostly flat earth wrapped in cold for a solid half year, and in reassuring ourselves that this is a place worth our time.

Reflected in the vapid land were the personalities of our state's early settlers. Look at photographs of the pioneers who settled this land. Not much flamboyance. After all, it took a great deal of heads down resolve to make a go of it here, a humble stick-to-itiveness not particularly necessary in places like, say, San Diego. It still does in a way.

Yes, there are exceptions to every rule. Wood duck drakes are among the most colorful of the world's birds, Painted Canyon in the badlands is a singular place nearly without peer in the world, and "Wild Bill" Langer was an ostentatious, larger-than-life politician from good old North Dakota.

For the most part, though, our grassy landscape demands a subtle appreciation, one that fulfills itself with relatively few "oh wow" moments; that and a modest perseverant constitution. It requires a nuanced eye to see the small, the understated, and come away pleased. If a person can bask in the serene visual of an upland sandpiper folding its wings, that person may very well find contentment on the prairie.