Science From Iowa’s Prairies

11:46 minutes

Iowa prairie in summer with blue sky and fluffy clouds.
A prairie in Iowa during the summer. Credit: Shutterstock

This week, SciFri is coming to you from Ames, Iowa. We’re kicking off the sciencey Iowa celebrations by spotlighting some of the plants, animals and unique ecosystems of the Hawkeye state. Ira talks with Charity Nebbe, host of the “Talk of Iowa” at Iowa Public Radio, about the state’s largest prairie restoration project, the conservation of prairie chickens, and its rebounding wildlife.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Charity Nebbe

Charity Nebbe is the host of Talk of Iowa at Iowa Public Radio in Iowa City, Iowa.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you today from Iowa Public Radio in Ames, Iowa. And later in the hour, some sediment science. What studying Mars can teach us about Earth and vice versa.

But first, Iowa is a state that to many folks is synonymous with corn, right? You think Iowa, you picture corn fields. So I wanted to start the show by highlighting some of the other plants, animals, unique ecosystems of the Hawkeye State that we, non-Iowans, don’t know much about.

And who to better act as our tour guide to some of Iowa’s natural treasures than one of Iowa Public Radio’s own treasures, Charity Nebbe, the host of the talk show Talk of Iowa, heard on Iowa Public Radio in Iowa City. Charity, welcome to Science Friday.

CHARITY NEBBE: Well, thank you so much, Ira. It’s a delight to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. I want to start off by talking about how Iowa’s ecosystem has changed. I mean, the landscape used to be dominated by tall prairie grass and wetlands. What happened?

CHARITY NEBBE: Well, European settlement is what happened. And when you say, you know, you think of corn, when you think of Iowa, you’re not wrong. We have corn and soybeans covering acres and acres and acres of land in Iowa. A lot of our landscape is covered by this monoculture now.

But before European settlement, tallgrass prairie was the most common ecosystem in the state. And it covered 85% of Iowa’s land.


CHARITY NEBBE: And Iowa is actually– has the unique status of being the most biologically-altered state in the entire nation. Tallgrass prairie went from covering 85% of Iowa’s land. Today, it covers less than 0.1% of land in the state. So European settlement, obviously it changed everything in this country. But it really dramatically reshaped the landscape in Iowa.

IRA FLATOW: But there have been some efforts, right, to recreate some of that lost prairie? And I’m thinking of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Tell me a bit about how that came to be.

CHARITY NEBBE: Absolutely. Well, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in– it’s very near Des Moines. The nearest town is Prairie City, aptly named. And that came about– and Neal Smith was a congressman who was influential in creating it. But that was farmland that was entirely reconstructed into this native ecosystem.

And so now when you visit the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, you can really experience what it’s like to be in the middle of a tallgrass prairie, with over 5,000 acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie. They also have a herd of bison on the land.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding.

CHARITY NEBBE: Yeah. And it’s an opportunity to really feel what it was like. I don’t think you can ever fully really understand what it was like to stand in this, just, ocean of grasses that went on and on and on. Because it’s pretty easy to see far in Iowa, so you can always see power lines. You can always see roads, that kind of thing. But still, it’s pretty special.

And there are other really wonderful prairie refuges around the state. There are a few tracks of virgin prairie that you can visit around the state as well. And it’s really, really wonderful to see. A lot of landowners in Iowa have reconstructed prairie on their own land. And now we’re seeing people do it in their front yards too, which is really cool.

IRA FLATOW: That is cool. Let’s talk about some of the birds, some of the interesting birds in Iowa. I know you have a funny story about trumpeter swans who were brought to the Iowa State campus. I’d love you to tell us about it.

CHARITY NEBBE: Yeah. Well, I’ll start at the beginning, which is– so in Iowa, when you talk about most native species– again, the land was transformed, but so were the wild animals. So almost every species in the state has kind of the same story, where they were hunted to the point of extirpation after European settlement.

And then there have been some incredible comeback stories. And the trumpeter swans are one of those just incredible stories. The last nesting pair was spotted in Iowa in 1883, until the Iowa Department of Natural Resources decided to try to reintroduce mating pairs of trumpeter swans. That started in 1993.

And so they would put these pairs– landowners would volunteer to host a pair of mated swans on their land. And Iowa State University was also involved– very heavily involved in this project.

And there’s a pond on campus. I guess– it’s Lake Laverne is the name of it. But a pond is a really better description– it’s not that big. And it always had mute swans, and still does have mute swans, on Lake Laverne. But they decided to put a pair of trumpeter swans on campus. And that was when I was a student.

And so this mated pair of trumpeter swans was there. And they are giant birds, Ira. They’re so big. Their wingspan is well over 6 feet.


CHARITY NEBBE: And they can also be a little territorial and aggressive.

IRA FLATOW: As swans will be.


IRA FLATOW: I know all about swans. Yes.

CHARITY NEBBE: So the male trumpeter swan started really protecting their territory. He attacked cars on the road and ripped windshield wipers off. And no one got hurt. And they decided– they also did not successfully raise cygnets on Lake Laverne. So they relocated that pair and brought mute swans back.

But the trumpeter swans, as of 1993, there were over 100 pairs of trumpeter swans nesting in the state. And huge flocks passed through each fall and spring. You can go to Ada Hayden there in Ames, a small park, and just see hundreds of trumpeter swans every fall.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding.

CHARITY NEBBE: It’s really extraordinary. And really, it’s also a testament to the power of individuals to really make a difference. And the birds are not without their challenges. Lead poisoning is a common challenge to trumpeter swans today because of legacy lead that’s still in the waters of Iowa. But it really is an incredible comeback story.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s talk about another iconic bird native to Iowa. And I’m thinking of the greater prairie chicken. So for our listeners who don’t live in your neighborhood or are not familiar with them, give us a short prairie chicken 101. Because they are fascinating, too, aren’t they?

CHARITY NEBBE: They are. And even a lot of Iowans have never heard of the greater prairie chicken. The story of the greater prairie chicken is kind of similar to the story of the passenger pigeon. They were incredibly populous before European settlement, and they were one of those rare species that actually thrived on European settlement.

The mix of farmland and grassland was perfect for them. So they were everywhere. And then they were hunted and hunted and hunted to the point where they very nearly disappeared and did disappear from Iowa.

But there’s a very small flock in Southern Iowa that has been reintroduced. It’s in the Kellerton grassland area. It’s managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. And there are fewer than 100 birds down there.


CHARITY NEBBE: Yeah. But you can go, and you can see these birds. Every spring, they put on this incredible mating display, as male birds often do. But the greater prairie chicken, they look kind of like a pheasant, a smaller grouse or something like that.

But they puff up their necks. And they have these orange air sacs that inflate. And so they have this just brilliant orange color. And then they strut around, a lek, an open grassland area. And they sometimes fight with each other to show off how powerful they are for the ladies who are gathered around the edges of the lek.

And they make this call. It’s called “booming,” which I feel like is kind of a misnomer because it’s not all that loud. But it’s more like a woo, woo, woo, woo noise. And they put on this show for hours.

IRA FLATOW: And you went to see this, right?

CHARITY NEBBE: I did. I did. And it’s extraordinary to see. It’s also extraordinary to think about how common they were, how they lived among us. And, of course, humans are really bad at understanding their impact on the land and on species. I’m sure that the settlers thought that they could never kill so many that they would disappear, and yet they did.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any way to save them?

CHARITY NEBBE: You know, this small flock is doing OK. But because of the way that our land is broken up now by roads and farmland and cities, et cetera, there really aren’t very many places that they have enough contiguous habitat that they can live.

You can go see them in Nebraska, for example– they have more of them than we do– and South Dakota. But yeah, they just– there aren’t many places in Iowa where they can successfully exist.

IRA FLATOW: There’s another species that’s made a comeback in the state. And I’m talking about the bald eagle. And is it true that you saw a tree full of bald eagles? That’s hard to imagine.

CHARITY NEBBE: Every winter, I see trees full. They’re almost as common as pigeons sometime along the Iowa River. I’m in Iowa City. That’s where I’m based.

And, of course, Ira, you know the story about bald eagles, which, of course, is that they almost disappeared because of DDT, which was everywhere in our environment and made their eggs very thin so they couldn’t successfully breed. But I grew up in Iowa. And I never saw a bald eagle until I was 12 years old. And now a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see a bald eagle. They’re so common in Iowa again and so incredibly beautiful. There are so many nesting pairs.

And one of the coolest things you can do is check out the Raptor Resource Project in Decorah, Iowa, because they run a bald eagle cam. And if you just search bald eagle cam– you can throw Decorah in there, too– you get to watch a mated pair of bald eagles rear their young up close and personal.

There are many nesting pairs around Iowa. But right now, there’s one nesting pair in Iowa that you can watch up close and personal. And, oh, it’s incredible. And I’ll tell you, when my kids were little and I got so excited every time I saw a bald eagle, finally, they were like, mom, we see them every day!


CHARITY NEBBE: Why do you get so excited? And I said, because when I was growing up, I never thought my kids would see a bald eagle. And here they are.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thank you, Charity, for being up close and personal with us today.

CHARITY NEBBE: Absolutely. Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Charity Nebbe, the host of Talk of Iowa at Iowa Public Radio based in Iowa City.

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