How to Know the Birds: No. 75, The Other Other Iowa

  • What: Dickcissel, Spiza americana
  • When: Sunday, May 7, 2023
  • Where: Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Jasper County, Iowa

The U.S. state of Iowa, perhaps more than any other U.S. state and perhaps more than any Canadian province, is synonymous with agriculture. With agriculture on a vast scale: impressive and technological and efficient and profitable, but also daunting and dystopian. Iowa is a sea of corn and soybeans, from Sioux City on the Missouri to Davenport on the Mississippi, right?

Not exactly.

For starters, “on the Missouri” and “on the Mississippi” are hints that there’s more to Iowa than just sterile ag fields. Along those mighty rivers, and in many other places in the state, there are wonderful woodlands, many of them well preserved and vigorously protected. Earlier this month, I got to spend time in several such tracts in and around the capital and primary city of Des Moines. At Walnut Woods and Browns Woods and elsewhere in the Des Moines region, I and my companions enjoyed studies of pileated woodpeckers and barred owls; we spent Q. T. with yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers; we delighted in summer tanagers and Swainson’s thrushes and more. We were half-expecting Sasquatch to stumble by at some point. We did see a slime mold, at least as exciting, as far as I am concerned.

A slime mold, woohoo! This one, found on May 7 at Saylorville Lake just north of Des Moines, is likely Brefeldia maxima, the tapioca slime mold. In the broadleaf forests of central Iowa—that’s right, forests in the middle of the state, at Saylorville and elsewhere—one finds pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, warblers aplenty, and, delectably, slime molds. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

The forests of Iowa are, hm, obvious. Call them “the other Iowa.” The part that isn’t under cultivation. The part with blooming redbuds, creeping slime molds, and warblers dripping from the trees.

But there’s yet another Iowa, just as precious, perhaps even more so. Call it “the other other Iowa.” And unlike the marvelous old forests tracts with their in-your-face pileated woodpeckers and barred owls, the other other Iowa is so subtle that even a lifelong Hawkeye might miss it altogether.

On the afternoon of my last day in Iowa, my companions kidnapped me and took me to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge east of Des Moines a little bit. We drove through cornfields to get there. When we got there, there were cornfields on one side of the road. On the other side of the road were, well, fields with grass. Not much of a difference, you might be excused for saying. Corn on one side, grass on the other, it’s all the same, yeah? Except that the side with the grass had birds like this one, a dickcissel:

A dickcissel watches from a patch of prairie at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge east of Des Moines. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

The unnuanced but basically accurate and complete version of the story goes like this: Dickcissels and a suite of other prairie bird species flourish where there are indigenous grasslands of the sort that are protected at Neal Smith. And they are largely to entirely absent from cornfields of the sort directly across the road from where I photographed the bird.

Those cornfields are essentially as unsuitable for grassland specialists as they are for pileated woodpeckers and barred owls. And they’re up against a challenge that the forest tracts, really, are not.

People don’t even know they’re there.

The dickcissel, honestly, is just about the most obvious thing in Iowa’s indigenous grasslands. It’s colorful. If you didn’t catch it the first time:

As prairie specialists go, the Dickcissel is colorful and conspicuous. It is in the same family, Cardinalidae, as the scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, and painted bunting. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

It’s got a funny name, and it sings a funny song. I got this audio of the bird:

The dickcissel is, all things considered, reasonably common out there. And conspicuous, although that’s relative. Even on a hot and windy afternoon, when all the other birds had quieted down, the dickcissels were still going at it, full tilt:

I had a plane to catch, and, in no time at all, we were back on the freeway, headed for the airport. With cornfields all around, and, off in the distance, “just some grass.”

The writer and journalist Richard Louv says:

“We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see.”

Iowa’s forest tracts are visible. You can see them from 30,000 feet, literally. Iowans and all the rest of us love those forests, and their future is probably secure.

Iowa’s indigenous grasslands are another matter. From 30,000 feet they look like cornfields. Driving by them in a car, they look like cornfields. For many people, Iowan’s remnant prairie might as well be cornfields—it’s “just some grass”—even if you’re standing right out in the middle of it. One might be excused for a gloomy take on the future of the other other Iowa.

But allow me to close, please, with a somewhat more sanguine assessment.

The reason I was in Iowa—okay, it was to see dickcissels and pileated woodpeckers and slime molds and redbuds—but it was also to celebrate the centenary of the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union. A hundred years! And there’s more to come. For sure, there was reminiscing during the Saturday evening birthday bash for the quirkily monikered I.O.U. But more than that, there was excitement for what is to come: challenging, yes, but ultimately promising. There was the sense that we’re going to come together and figure this all out, that we’re going to get to the point of seeing, knowing, loving, protecting.

Congratulations, I.O.U., on your 100th, and thank you, from all of us at the American Birding Association, for inspiring Iowans and others to “just” see “just some grass” out there.

On the Sun., May 7, 2023, Iowa Ornithologists’ Union field trip, Lakshmi and Toni plot the group’s next move—perhaps for the hour ahead, perhaps for the years and decades beyond. Photo by © Ted Floyd.



Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.