Greenspace: Important? Urban prairies are for the birds
So, how are those native prairies doing? The Zumbro Valley Audubon Society's February meeting will focus on native prairies in and around Rochester where folks can experience the environment the way nature meant southeastern Minnesota to be.
Jacob Ryg, Rochester's city forester and planned speaker at a Feb. 26 program at Quarry Hill Nature Center, says there are more than a dozen native prairie sites in the city, most of which are restored prairie.
"They vary from an acre to 100 acres," Ryg said. "We'll talk about how previously we didn't do as good a job protecting these areas. But in the last seven to eight years, we've been doing a better job."
There are several benefits to these urban prairie sites in Rochester, Ryg said. First, they provide an excellent educational tool to teach the public about the importance of native prairies and native plant species in the area.
Second, each native prairie provides a home to wildlife — particularly birds and insects — that don't find a home in non-native landscapes.
"We have some endangered ecosystems like the oak savannah at Quarry Hill," Ryg said. "It's something that urban dwellers in cities don't see that much. Most people in cities just don't experience nature until they're exposed to it."
While the oak savannah at Quarry Hill is one of the larger, more well-known native prairie sites in town, Ryg says the city is dotted with great prairie sites. From the meandering prairie buffers along Silver Lake and Cascade Lake to the vast stretch of Essex Park, there is plenty of native vegetation in a variety of forms.
One of the best, Ryg said, might be the Northern Hills Prairie just southwest of Sam's Club in northwest Rochester. The site is one of few undisturbed prairies — not restored — in town.
"A lot of people go by there and don't even realize what it is," Ryg said. "There's just a tremendous variety of species there."
Saving and restoring native prairies works well with the Audubon Society's goals of animal conservation, Ryg said. The group understands that protecting habitats is the best way to protect the variety of species that call Minnesota home. "It's not just about the birds but the environment the birds live in," he said.
Without native prairies, he said, we'd see a lot fewer of species such as meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds and bluebirds, which get a boost from people building small homes for them in prairies.
"For the cavity dwellers such as tree sparrow and bluebird, these things are important," Ryg said. "In order to complete their life cycle they need a nesting cavity."