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Flight lines: Change the land, change the inhabitants

An icon of prairie-nesting birds, the Marbled Godwit faces an uncertain future in the quickly changing North Dakota landscape. Keith Corliss

While delivering a presentation recently I was asked if birds change their normal ranges. The answer, simply, is yes. To further understand the implications, though, it’s instructive to remember a phrase I utter quite often. Indeed it’s become a personal mantra of sorts. That is, ‘habitat is everything.’

Briefly, without appropriate habitat no living thing exists. Each creature requires (or at least desires) certain criteria for it to survive, procreate, and thrive. Some needs are more restrictive, some quite broad.

What is habitat? Basically it’s the local environment; everything from terrain, geography, climate, coexisting organisms, plant life, and more. These elements are in constant flux especially when a long eye is cast. If one were able to place himself at the Painted Canyon overlook near Medora millions of years ago, he would need a boat to navigate past alligators, crocodiles, and giant turtles.

Even in recent times, changes are quite notable. Famed American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were asked by President Jefferson to ascertain just what sort of route and potential commerce was available to an expanding nation, having recently acquired a vast swath of North America via the Louisiana Purchase. In addition to this primary task, the ever inquisitive president wanted the Corps of Discovery to collect a swarm of information on geography, astronomy, climatology, mineralogy, meteorology, botany, ornithology, and zoology. In all, over 200 plant and animal species new to science were found by the Corps, many in what would become North Dakota. This was a scientific field trip for the ages.

Vast herds of bison were encountered which today are limited to a few locations. Next in abundance were “antelope,” what we refer to now as pronghorns. Today their number are very limited, most west of the Missouri River. Large herds of elk were noted all along the Missouri River; obviously this doesn’t happen anymore. The first grizzly bear was met in the Dakotas, an animal long since eliminated from our region.

Ravens were regular visitors to their winter quarters of 1804-05 with the Mandans. Today this would constitute a rare sighting in that area. Sage Grouse, Whooping Cranes, and Long-billed Curlews were seen frequently. That doesn’t happen now. Supposedly, many Western Tanagers were found to be nesting in the badlands. It’s likely been decades since the last ones did. You get the picture.

What they didn’t chronicle is also informative. There were no Pigeons, European Starlings, or House Sparrows. These would be introduced to the continent in the century to follow. They didn’t see Greater Prairie Chickens either, another species that followed the pioneers and the breaking up of the prairie.

In our time notable shifts have taken place also. Some are due to the wet cycle we find ourselves in currently. Longtime Grand Forks birder David Lambeth tells me of seeing flocks of Lark Buntings a couple decades ago in Grand Forks County. That doesn’t happen anymore as the bird favors shorter grasses under drier conditions.

Most changes, though, are due to us and what we do to the landscape, either unwittingly or by design. The European Collared-dove, an escapee which arrived on continent in Florida, has colonized virtually the entire state in just a couple of decades.

A few native birds appear to be holding their own. Those able to tolerate disruptive conditions even thrive. Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows, for instance, don’t seem to mind nesting in ditches planted with introduced brome grass or along cultivated fields.

Those species less tolerant of cultivation, though, are suffering population losses at an ever increasing rate. With the alarming loss of prairie, Sprague’s Pipit, Greater Sage Grouse, Baird’s Sparrow, Mountain Plover, Ferruginous Hawk, and countless others, will become increasingly difficult to find, if not impossible one day.

This is the long way of saying yes, birds and other animals will and do change their ranges. It’s a never-ending give-and-take as the organisms adapt to the never-ending changes presented them. The unnerving part, personally, is how rapidly we seem to be altering the landscape today. I would even go so far as to say that a century from now, people will look at our current roster of plants, animals, and birds and long for the way it was, just as some of us read the finds of Lewis and Clark with envy. Habitat, as I say, is everything.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.