Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Prairie Camouflage

I believe that some of the most fascinating aspects of Flint Hills gardening have been the examples of local fauna adaptation that are everywhere around me, hiding alongside the prairie grasses.  I could wax long and hard on the invisibility of the various prairie snakes that tend to announce their presence at the best possible moment to give me heart palpitations.  But I'm not going to because I have deeply suppressed those memories of brief panics that make me a serious contender for the Olympic high jump. No, I'd like to present a couple of unique and more cuddly creatures of the prairie ecosystem.

One delight of gardening in Kansas is the stealthy appearance of the stately Praying Mantis.  From my childhood in Indiana, I was sure that the Praying Mantis was always light green, a green that made it invisible among the plants in my father's garden.  I would have bet that the Praying "Manti" of Kansas would be green as well, perhaps the exact green of big bluestem or Indian grass, but obviously I didn't know better.  In reality, the Mantis in Kansas has evolved to be present in greatest numbers in the Fall, when insect populations here have reached their peak, and they are not green, but are simply brown.  The brown of drying Fall prairie grass.  A brown tone mixed with the brown  color and the pattern of the dust that fills the air during the heat and droughts of summer.  I actually transferred the Mantis (I don't know the exact species) pictured at the right from the tall grass to the brick wall of my house simply so that it could photographed.  I'd never even have found it in the grass if it hadn't moved as I reached forward to fondle a Miscanthus seedhead.

If there were an award for camouflage, however, I'd give it to the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor).  Below, you can see a female Nighthawk who chose to nest a few summers back in the mulch surrounding a walnut tree in my yard.  Nowhere in my yard was there a better background for it to choose to hide against during mid-summer than that mulch and the flint rock surrounding it.  And it was obviously planning well, for behind it, if you look closely one of the things that looks like a rock is a Nighthawk chick, invisible against the mulch except for the beady little black eyes.  That chick and two other siblings survived an entire month after hatching, flat out in the open front yard, surrounded by predators both on the ground (my bird-loving Brittany Spaniel and a pair of cats, as well as hungry coyotes and sneaking snakes) and in the air (owls at night and Red-tail hawks during the day).  In reality, the biggest danger to this cute little ball of fluff was likely my lawn-mower, because during mowing, the chicks would run out into the grass, moving back and forth as I mowed next to the mulch.  I spent an entire month waiting for a horrendous little "pffft" and a tuft of feathers from the lawn mower deck, but somehow these little creatures survived all the hideous noise and the machinery that helps me keep the snake population down in the immediacy of my surroundings. 

Nature is sometimes incredibly brilliant in its designs and methods, is it not?


  1. Can you grow Oryzopsis hymenoides? Fascinating stuff found in the high deserts after the occasional wet winter. Quail just love it.

  2. Nice pics! I stumbled on my first Praying Mantis last year, and would also never have seen it if not for the fact that it was on the side of the house...such amazing camouflage!

  3. I've never seen Oryzopsis hymenoides offered commercially, but according to the USDA plant database, I should be able to grow it. I'll seek it out.

  4. Thank you for putting this up it helps my research alot!
    thanks again


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