urban prairie

June 19, 2006

in Field work,Urban issues

Early Sunday morning, husband and I set out to once again see what breeding birds we could find by driving routes through Detroit’s withering east side.  We were aiming, ultimately, for cemeteries, but it turns out that even old cemeteries, being well-groomed, had nothing on what is known in aging Rust Belt cities as the urban prairie.

After cruising through Mt. Olivet cemetery (where several years ago I discovered my great-grandparents, victims of the ~1920 smallpox outbreak, were buried in unmarked graves), we headed to nearby City Airport, hoping for Killdeer and perhaps grassland birds along the runways.  We stumbled upon one of the largest areas of urban prairie in Detroit.  The photo below shows many city blocks where only one or a few houses are still standing; probably half of those that still stand are abandoned.  Some streets are blocked by piles of trash or tires, or burnt-out vehicles.

The photo below shows the same area in 1961.  I’ve put a red mark on both shots at the same location for reference.  The missing trees are mostly victims of Dutch elm disease which wiped out Detroit’s 4000,000 elms by the 1970s.

In place of the trees and homes are vacant lots with 3-foot-tall grass and weeds, which does indeed resemble a prairie.  We found Indigo Buntings, Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and Eastern Kingbirds in these lots.  This is an area known for its large population of Ring-necked Pheasants, which are common throughout vacant lots in the city — more common than they are even in the outlying suburban and agricultural areas (they are kept in check mostly by feral dogs).

Seeing destroyed neighborhoods like this one is sad and disturbing.  White flight after the 1967 riots and the crack epidemic of the 1980s (which reportedly was the main cause of the depopulation of another Detroit neighborhood, shown graphically on this web page — mouse over the image) ignited the abandonment, and crumbling city finances have perpetuated the decay.  That birds and wildlife are using these areas is perhaps the only bright spot in this story.  Detroit can be revitalized, but it will have to be done block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, and first in line will be those areas that still have infastructure and life.

Nobody else is really willing to venture to these areas to do bird survey work, so we’ll be returning again this summer, and I’ll bring you more photos and stories of what we find in these re-greening urban expanses.


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