Restoring Alabama’s Native Prairies

Purple Aster at Limestone Park, AL. By Boris Datnow.

Purple Aster at Limestone Park, AL. By Boris Datnow.

The Bird Call Blog

by Clare Datnow

My first inkling that prairies once flourished in our state began with the writing of my eco mystery about monarch butterflies (Book 6). My mentors—Michelle Reynolds, expert on wildflower gardening, Paulette Ogard, and Sara Bright, authors of Butterflies of Alabama: Glimpses into Their Lives—helped me to see the vital link between butterflies and the restoration of wildflower prairies in our gardens and urban spaces.
Like many citizens of our state, I was unaware that prairies once flourished in Alabama. These indigenous prairies were quite large, covering at least 17700 acres in the Black Belt. Today less than 1% of the Black Belt’s open prairie habitat remains intact. Where have all the prairies gone?
By the early 1800s, the fertile soils of the Black Belt Prairies began to attract settlers. Armed with plows and teams of mules, they converted the native prairie grasses and flowers into cotton fields. In many areas, the fragile black soil was washed away, exposing the underlying chalk. Today, the Black Belt serves as pasture for livestock or for aquaculture, with only limited amounts of row crops. Non-native grasses and invasive woody plants have also degraded the prairies. Human activities, including fire suppression, dumping of waste and trash, and motorized vehicles continue to destroy what’s left of these special habitat.

Blue-winged teals at Limestone Park, AL. Photo by Boris Datnow.

Blue-winged teals at Limestone Park, AL. Photo by Boris Datnow.

The Birmingham Audubon’s Urban Bird Habitat Initiative spearheaded Limestone Park Prairie. Thanks to the unflagging dedication and expertise of Dick Mills and Ken Wills, the prairie restoration project is now a reality —a special place for birds and wildlife, and for nature lovers. Indeed, prairie grasslands in the Black Belt Region have outstanding biological diversity, hosting more than 400 species of plants and several thousand species of invertebrates.
Many who care deeply about the natural world have not yet learned about the prairies in their own backyard, or how they, as citizens, can influence conservation efforts. By joining organized field trips offered by organizations like the Birmingham Audubon and volunteering your time you can do your bit to restore these beautiful and vital prairie habitats.

Common Buckeye. Limestone Park, Alabaster, AL. By Boris Datnow.

Common Buckeye. Limestone Park, Alabaster, AL. By Boris Datnow.

On a personal note: Somehow I feel a special affinity to the prairies. Perhaps it’s because I grew up on the high veld, South Africa’s prairie lands. I treasure the memories of visits to game parks where moving herds of wildebeest, zebras, eland, and the predators that follow them still roam free (described in my memoir, Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid). For me, walking through a prairie evokes a sense of nostalgia, a feeling of coming home. And now, decades later, I can savor a sweet piece of “home” so lovingly restored in Alabama.

Visit Clare’s blog at Clare Datnow, Author.