What the heck is habitat?

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Adam Janke | Assistant Professor in Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Specialist, Iowa State University

I have seen a wide gamut of responses to the question posed in the title of this post. While preparing for my Ph.D. candidacy exams, I was asked a version of this question as it related to ducks and agonized over the response for months (you’ll see elements of my answer below). In another extreme, I recently posed the same question at a meeting and received an enthusiastic, unequivocating answer of, “corn fields.” I’ll spare you the details of why it is that Iowa’s 13.2 million acres of corn are almost certainly not a limiting feature for ducks, but suffice it to say that my mental picture of habitat for ducks (wetlands) was starkly different from this respondent’s own mental image (corn fields). Same word. Same question. Drastically different responses.

The mental image we conjure of “habitat” depends on two factors:

The first factor, is what kind of habitat we’re talking about. Habitat the noun is functionally meaningless without the clarifying help of one or more adjectives like “pileated woodpecker habitat”, “duck nesting habitat” or “winter pheasant habitat”. Asserting, “I’m creating habitat” could simultaneously mean you’re building a flat-roofed building where Common Nighthawks will nest or you’re restoring the Regal Fritillary butterfly and it’s host plants to a native prairie. Same word. Drastically different meanings.

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What “habitat” means varies widely between species, like mallards (left) who make use of a diversity of wetlands, ponds, and fields, and pileated woodpeckers (right) who are picky in their selection of large tracts of mature forests. (Photos by Adam Janke and Pixabay )

The second factor, is the one that gave me so much anxiety in anticipation of the question during my candidacy exams. That is, what features of habitat are most limiting for a species of wildlife, and how do we know? Biologists are taught to remember Leibig’s Law of the Minimum. Without information on how limiting any one resource is, we’re left only guessing and often fail to see desired responses to habitat restoration that miss the mark on limiting factors. To uncover limiting factors we must take measurements, which presents its own challenges because wildlife are hard to observe (hence the ‘wild’ part). Volumes in my professional discipline are written on the issue of “imperfect detectability” and overcoming this observational challenge is the source of substantial frustration.

Thus, to answer “what the heck is habitat” in Iowa, or any landscape, we need to make some assumptions. Leading to the chronically unsatisfying assertion — “it depends” — as the prevailing answer to the question.

However, I think it safe to make a few generalizations to answer this question. To do so, I’m going to lean on the collective expert opinion of 74 of my peers that recently responded to a survey I sent to attendees of the annual Iowa Habitat Partners Conference (two of those attendees and conference organizers are featured on this month’s episode of The Conservation Chat). These 74 wildlife biologists from across the state were asked to rank “the ‘quality’ [of each practice] as habitat for pheasants, quail, and other farmland wildlife in Iowa.” I standardized each participant’s response so that each ranking ranged from 0, the lowest habitat quality score, to 100, the highest.

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Mean (± standard deviation) ‘habitat quality’ ratings from 74 wildlife biologists in Iowa asked to rank the quality of each habitat type for ‘pheasants, quail, and other farmland wildlife.’

Here’s the generalizations that emerged:

  • Any changes to the status quo are improvements in habitat quality for farmland wildlife. 93% of respondents gave corn-bean rotations or continuously grazed pastures their lowest habitat quality score.
  • Natural, perennial features like wetlands, prairies, and rotational pastures are higher quality.
  • Diversity in plants and vegetation structure matter, as reflected by the negative attitude of the group towards ‘Non-diverse’ CRP fields and continuously grazed pastures.
  • Larger patches of vegetation rate higher than smaller ones, as reflected in the higher ratings of whole-field CRP fields, wildlife areas, and wetlands, over small patches like stream buffers, prairie strips, and ‘odd areas.’

Beyond these generalizations, the wide range in respondent rankings clearly conveyed little consensus on the quality of individual features in the absence of additional clarifying details on the species or places in question. Here we find the final point of consensus.

Immediately after I hit “send” on the survey, a chorus of cries of “it depends” and “this isn’t fair!” came echoing back to my inbox from every corner of the state. Biologists, trained to think critically about limiting factors, plant diversity, patch size and connectivity, and a whole suite of other factors determining the ‘quality’ of any given ‘habitat’, insisted on answers to questions like “What factors are already limiting”, “What species”, “What part of the state” and so on in their emails.

I smiled receiving these emails because this skepticism, intuition, and critical thinking about what the heck is habitat is exactly as it should be.

Adam Janke

The Fabulous World of Wetlands

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

As a continuation from last month’s blog, I will be explaining another one of our great modules with Water Rocks!. Our presentation over wetlands has many interesting and important facts along with a few games as well. The module is meant to feel like the students are on a game show and we are their game show hosts. This presentation, like all the others, has been fine-tuned by our team to make it run super smoothly in the classroom with elementary and middle school students.

Our Fabulous World of Wetlands module starts with an audio “field trip,” where we have all the students close their eyes as we play some sounds from out in nature. We then ask them what different sounds they heard. After they have given us some of the different creatures they heard, we ask them where they think the sounds were recorded, hoping that they eventually answer wetlands. We then ask them to answer a trivia/evaluation question to establish their baseline understanding of the subject.

We then continue into our first game, a guessing game in which the students have to try and guess what the three main characteristics of wetlands are (hydric soils, presence of water, and water-loving plants). After the students eventually get all three things, sometimes with the help of some hints, we move on to show them three objects that represent the three main jobs of wetlands. The first object is a coffee filter and we explain that wetlands filter the water and leave it cleaner after it passes through the wetlands. The second object is a sponge and we explain that hydric soils store water like a sponge would if it was dropped in a bucket of water. The third and final object is a small house, which we use to explain that wetlands are a habitat to many different creatures. After we get done explaining the three jobs we have the students repeat them to lock the knowledge into their brains.

We then transition to talking about some certain creatures that rely on wetlands, particularly migratory birds and butterflies. We ask the students to think about if we were all to get on a bus and take a long journey down to Texas, what would be some reasons that we would stop on our journey? They usually answer with things such as food, water, bathroom, sleep, etc. We then explain that for those same reasons that we would stop, birds and butterflies need those same things and they stop at wetlands to take care of all of it along their journeys. This leads us into the next game which is Habitat Hopscotch. This game involves different states that are on the birds’ and butterflies’ migratory paths, as pictured above. But there is a twist—there are some situations that remove wetlands in certain states, which means we remove that state from the game. We then go through all the situations one-by-one, and by the end of the game, there are only three of the original ten squares remaining. That means there are not many wetlands left for the birds and butterflies to stop at!

After the completion of Habitat Hopscotch, we show two maps of Iowa, one of what Iowa looked like 200 years ago and the other one of present day Iowa. What we are showing the students is that our state used to be almost all prairie and wetlands but now the state is mostly covered by corn and beans. We then let them know that 90% of our original wetlands have been converted into other things. We also tell them that 99.9% of our state’s prairie land has also been converted. But it’s not all bad news—there has been good work with farmers to restore both prairie and wetlands on part of their land, which is great for all the creatures that call wetlands home.

This leads us into our game of Wetlands Bingo, which allows the students to see many more of the creatures that live in wetlands. After each wetland bingo, we ask that student a trivia question that gives them a chance to win a prize. When we have had multiple winners, we then finish with the same trivia/evaluation question that we did near the beginning of our presentation. We also leave each classroom teacher with a set of Wetland Bingo cards, so they and their students can continue learning about the Fabulous World of Wetlands and all the amazing creatures that call wetlands their home!

Joshua Harms

Apply today for Water Resources Summer Internship!

Have an interest in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality?  We are seeking undergraduate student interns for our summer 2019 Water Resources Internship Program who are self-motivated, detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, and have a sense of fun! Interns’ time will be split between outreach and research, all centered around environmental issues and challenges in Iowa.

Visit the 2019 Water Resources Internship Program webpage for additional information and complete application instructions. Applications close Thursday, January 31 at 5:00pm.

Summer interns will have the opportunity to:

  • Work with two exciting Iowa State University education and outreach programs:
  • Develop strong oral communication skills as you help children and adults better understand environmental and agricultural issues
  • Travel throughout the state of Iowa with the fleet of three Conservation Station trailers
  • Contribute to water and soil quality research projects in ISU’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
  • Gain technical skills related to agricultural and biosystems engineering, environmental science, soil health and water quality through both field and lab research

Highlights from the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program. 

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How to Apply:
Required application materials include:

  • PDF Resume (Be sure to include your GPA, major, and previous work experience)
  • PDF Cover Letter (Tell us what interests you about this internship and why you’d be a great fit!)

Internship application deadline is 5:00pm on Thursday, January 31, 2019. Please submit your complete application package to Liz Juchems via email – ejuchems@iastate.edu.

Liz Juchems

Give a Little, Learn a Lot

As the end of the year approaches, please consider a tax-deductible gift to Water Rocks!, investing in the next generation of Iowans, inspiring them to protect our state’s water, land, and wildlife!

Water Rocks! and the Conservation Stations have fanned out across Iowa for years to raise awareness for water quality and conservation issues among growing audiences. We’ve won awards and gotten lots of cheers, but as they say, that won’t put dinner on the table—or clean water in your glass.

While our music video “It’s All About That Bog” delivers a message about wetlands, for today “It’s All About That Green”—the green that we need to keep the programming moving forward. We’ve got a top-notch education program, and we need your help now more than ever before.

Please help us continue to bring Iowans from every walk of life these important messages about the water and natural resources we all share.

What makes Water Rocks! and the Conservation Stations work:

  • Hands-on demonstrations and practical educational sessions
  • Using music and the arts to attract, engage and teach audiences of every age and background
  • Combining science, research and fun to build understanding of land management, biodiversity, watershed dynamics, conservation challenges and solutions
  • Financially attainable by schools with shrinking or nonexistent budgets—enabled by financial support to Water Rocks! from donors across the state

Please “Give a Little”, to help bring high-quality conservation outreach and education programming to schools, outdoor classrooms, fairs and community events so the next generation of Iowans can “Learn a Lot.”

To contribute, visit the Iowa State University Foundation’s Water Rocks! gift portal, www.foundation.iastate.edu/waterrocks.  Thank you so much for your consideration!

The Adventures Down Your Gravel Road

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

Taking adventures adds lots of new life experiences. Many people think that those adventures involve lots of money and traveling to different states or countries. However, people miss out on a lot of experiences in the natural world that could very well be right down the nearest gravel road.

I think we could all benefit from learning to love the places we live instead of always wanting to live somewhere else. The beauty of this world we live in is endless. I encourage you to go explore the areas around you because you may just find some of that beauty closer to you than expected. Each of the four seasons here in Iowa bring a different type of beauty along with them. Spring brings lots of blooming flowers, summer brings some bright sunsets, fall comes with the beautiful change of color within the leaves, and finally winter brings a snowy wonderland.

At the end of October I took an adventure of my own down some gravel roads in my area looking for cool photos to be taken, and I found some places that I didn’t even know existed before. Here are two of the photos I took while on this expedition. Myself and a friend of mine explored some of the very little remaining prairie land. This land was quite difficult to find as it is very hard to see from the road. So if you were looking to find this area of prairie, good luck!

I encourage you to explore the area around you, because there very well may be some amazing things around your area that you never knew about. Iowa is a truly amazing state, but the beauty thereof may just be a little more hidden than it used to be. By all means go out and explore the world we live in to find some of that hidden beauty. Get out in nature and take in the sights and sounds of our great state – adventure awaits!

Joshua Harms

Water Rocks! Conservation Education Programs Reach 36,000 Iowan Students

The annual report from Water Rocks! highlights increases in comprehension scores and curriculum adoption of watershed concepts across the state

Water Rocks! recently published its 2017-18 Annual Evaluation Report, detailing the impacts Water Rocks! visits had on students, teachers, and conservation education during the 2017-18 academic year. Reaching a cross section of Iowa’s youth, Water Rocks! delivered classroom presentations, outdoor classroom programs, and school assemblies to audiences comprised of more than 36,000 students. Feedback and evaluation metrics gathered during the year show significant increases in student comprehension as well as more adoption of conservation topics in classroom discussion both before and after program visits.

Water Rocks! delivers lessons about watersheds, wetlands, soil, pollinators and biodiversity to students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Within each 45- to 50-minute program, Water Rocks! strives to achieve its educational goals through a combination of hands-on games, interactive activities, music, plays, discussion and energetic presenters.

“Together with Iowa’s classroom teachers, Water Rocks! is helping students increase environmental literacy on timely natural resources issues, with high-energy programs that make a lasting impact,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “In compiling the annual report, we were also delighted to note that more teachers reported introducing students to watersheds and water quality topics before our visits and indicated desire to promote follow-up discussion and activities with their students.”


Key findings in the report include:

  • Presented in 180 schools and 12 outdoor classrooms, reaching over 36,000 students
  • Watershed identification comprehension increased from 36 percent before, to 95 percent after, the lesson
  • Some 88 percent of teachers planned to hold follow-up discussions with students covering the Water Rocks! materials and information

The report also includes the results of new evaluations conducted with peer helpers, students selected by school principals to assist in Water Rocks! assembly productions. These students were asked a more detailed set of before and after questions. The results reinforced the general trends in comprehension noted in the large groups, but also provide new insights which may help enrich future programming.

“Through Water Rocks! lessons, it is evident that the peer helpers are learning much more than just vocabulary, they are learning about the interconnectedness of natural resources and possible solutions to the environmental challenges in the world around them,” noted Staudt.

To learn read the report or to view comments from students and teachers, please visit https://www.waterrocks.org/201718-water-rocks-evaluation-report.

Water Rocks! Amps Up Conservation Conversation with Rap Music Videos

New videos pop to the top of the Water Rocks! charts enabling audiences to learn about conservation while having fun!

Water Rocks! has released a series of new rap music videos created to engage audiences with music and messages about conservation topics ranging from soil health (“Royal Soil”) to understanding watersheds (“Watershed Rap”). The videos are available to view and enjoy on www.waterrocks.org.

Through classroom visits and school assembly programs, Water Rocks! uses a combination of science, music, games, audience interaction, and videos to deliver information, engage with students, and teach the upcoming generation about the importance of our natural resources and ways to improve the environment. Topics include biodiversity, land management, water quality, the importance of pollinators, and things every person can do to contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable ecosystem.

“Music is a powerful teaching tool that helps us learn faster and remember more. Through song, students learn key vocabulary and get a solid grasp of environmental issues,” said Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! director. “Our creative team had fun writing and producing these quirky videos which are designed to appeal to an upper elementary and middle school audience, but we know everyone will enjoy them. We wanted them to be fun and we wanted the science to be solid.”

The rap video series includes “Royal Soil,” “Wetlands,” “Watershed Rap,” “Monarch Milkweed Magic,” “Biodiversity Rap,” and “When We Waste Food.” These six new clips join some eighty-plus Water Rocks! video selections available on www.waterrocks.org. Video content from Water Rocks! ranges from short animation clips to full-length documentaries, offering science-based education for audiences ranging from kindergarten students to adults.

Iowa City videographer Andrew Bentler directed and edited the rap series. Bentler has worked on national television programs such as Z Nation and Mountain Men. The songs featured in the videos are also performed live during Water Rocks! assemblies at schools across Iowa.

To inquire about bringing Water Rocks! and its music-driven conservation education to your school, please visit www.waterrocks.org/wr-school-assemblies