Gateway to the Classics: Prairie Neighbors by Edith M. Patch and Carroll Lane Fenton
Prairie Neighbors by  Edith M. Patch and Carroll Lane Fenton

Prairie Days

Y OU could have a happy time if you went on a long "treasure hunt" to see how many beautiful flowers you could find growing on the prairie.

The pasqueflower blossoms early in the spring—so early that often there still is some snow left on the ground. Its purplish-blue flower has no petals, but the colored sepals are large and petal-like.

The Indians, who lived on the prairies before the white men came, loved the early pasqueflowers. They said that these blossoms tried to show how friendly they were by nodding their pretty heads in the chilly spring wind.

The leaves and stem of the plant are covered with short silky hairs. Its seed head has long feathery white plumes. People sometimes call it the "gosling flower" because it is so downy.


Pasqueflowers or "Goslings"

You would find roses. One common prairie rose has low, very prickly stems and large blossoms. The prairie climbing rose, or prairie queen rose, has climbing stems with stout prickles. It is found on the borders of prairies and thickets. These roses are visited by many bees. The pink flowers have no nectar for their insect guests, but the bees busy themselves by gathering the yellow pollen. Later in the season birds enjoy the bright red fruit (called "rose hips").

You are likely to find so many wild strawberry blossoms that you will decide to come to the same place when the berries are ripe. You will not be disappointed in the taste of the small sweet berries.

The purple prairie clover and the white prairie clover do not have their flowers clustered in roundish heads like the cultivated red and white clovers. Instead, their flowers are crowded together in spike-shaped heads.

In May you will find the pretty violet-blue blossoms of the spiderworts and watch the big early bumblebees while they gather spiderwort pollen.


The spiderwort blossoms in May.

You may hear people talking about prairie plants with such strange names as alumroot, black-eyed Susan, blazing star, blue sailors, compass plant, crane's-bill, cruel plant—and so on through the alphabet to names beginning with such as Zizia. A few closely related plants are called Zizia after a man whose name was Ziz. One of the Zizias is the early meadow parsnip with golden yellow blossoms.

Certainly there are very many interesting plants on the prairies and along their borders. But you would not be likely to notice nearly all of them. You would forget about your treasure hunt for blossoms every now and then because you would stop to listen to the prairie music.

An early flock of red-winged blackbirds might be giving their song of "O-ka-lee!"  in a chorus of a hundred voices or more. Bob White might be whistling while he perched on an old fence post. Bob o' Link might be singing his favorite solo. A prairie chicken might be crowing his morning tune of "Old-Mul-Doon."  If plovers were calling, you would notice how they were chattering.

Perhaps your favorite prairie bird would be the Western meadowlark. The Eastern meadowlark would be there, too, and you could not tell which was which by looking at them. But you could tell by listening. The Eastern meadowlark would sing only short tunes sounding as if the words might be "Spring is here!"

The Western meadowlark would sing a longer tune—a wonderful ringing, whistling sort of song. He might perch on a post and sing for a while. Then he might fly and warble joyfully as his fluttering wings took him up.

Another bird you would be happy to hear is the prairie horned lark. He soars much higher than a meadowlark for his flight song, and he seems like a tiny speck against a white cloud as he hovers and repeats his short musical tune. Then perhaps you will hear him sing again while he is on the ground perched on a stone. His "horns" are two tufts of black feathers, one on each side of the crown of his head.


Prairie Horned Lark

Where can you find a prairie with flowers and birds like these?

Prairie  is a French word meaning "meadow," but you do not need to go to France to visit a prairie. About two hundred and sixty years ago French explorers came to America and traveled through the country near the Mississippi River. When they came to any nearly level, treeless land that stretched out as far as they could see, they called it a "prairie." This name has stayed with us ever since those early days.

When people now speak of the prairie region of our country, they usually mean about the same part that is also called the Central Plains. They do not mean the Great Plains that are farther west.

Two hundred and sixty years ago there were fewer people and more wild animals living on the prairies than there are today. But even now the birds and little furry beasts that we tell about in the following chapters are still to be found in some prairie places.

Many of these prairie neighbors live in other regions, too. For instance, dainty mice like Whitefoot, or nearly like him, may be found in all of the United States and in the southern half of Canada. Horned larks may be found in most parts of North America; in northern South America; in Europe, northern Africa, and Asia. The prairie climbing rose grows in thickets from Ontario to Florida and westward as far as Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Texas. Indeed, you may meet very many of the "prairie neighbors" without going to the prairies at all.

Since a prairie is a meadow, you may think that there would be only grassy fields in the prairie region. If you think that, you will be surprised. Rivers and smaller streams run through the prairies and there are lakes and swamps here and there. Trees grow near these wet places.

So in the prairie country you may find ducks and muskrats and other birds and furry animals that like to live near water. You may find forest creatures, too, in the bordering woodlands.

In other parts of the country the small streams that flow into rivers often are called "brooks." But the prairie streams usually are called "creeks," or sometimes "cricks." Prairie swamps and marshes and bogs are likely to be called "sloughs." The woods are commonly called "groves" or "openings."


An oak grove on the prairie.

If you go to that part of our country known as the Central Plains, we think that your prairie days will be happy—whether you wander along a creek or visit an oak opening or stay in the wide-stretching fields where the waving grass ripples in the wind as far as you can see.

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