A habitat is a place where things
live and grow naturally. Discuss with your children where their habitat
is - their home. Talk about the different kinds of homes in which we
Where are our houses located?
in a city
in the country
by the sea?
by the mountains?
All wildlife has four basic needs to
survive in their habitat:
Space: a safe place to live and raise their babies
Shelter: a safe place to hide, sleep, and be warm and
protected from the weather
Water: for drinking and bathing
Food: to live and grow
Iowa has three major habitats:
prairie, woods, and wetlands. The next three programs in this booklet
will introduce you and your children to the three major habitats found in Iowa.
Note: For an excellent
introductory article on habitats, read Welcome Wildlife from Copycat
magazine, Mar/April 1997.
Most amphibians, frogs, toads, and
salamanders spend some of their life cycle in and around ponds. All
amphibians must lay their eggs in water and, in their early life stage, are
called tadpoles. After they mature, toads and salamanders head for dry
land, whereas many species of frogs live their adult lives in water.
Frogs vs. Toads
If you visit a pond on a warm spring
evening, you may hear what sounds like sleigh bells jingling or the twang of a
loose banjo string. Your ears are not playing tricks on you; you are
actually hearing the sounds of frogs. The male frogs are the singers who
hope to attract a female mate with their loud voices. Male frogs have
pouches of loose skin under their chins, called vocal sacs. Air is forced
out of their lungs, through the throat and into the vocal sac, which puffs out
like a big bubble. As the air passes through the throat, it vibrates the
frogs' vocal chords and produces the sound. Here are some common frogs of
the pond and what their songs sound like: spring peeper -- sleigh bells, green
frog -- twang of a loose banjo string, bullfrog -- a deep voice saying Achug-o-rum,
chorus frog -- a fingernail running over the teeth of a comb, and cricket frog
-- marbles being clacked together.
Although frogs and toads look much
the same, it is easy to tell them apart when you know what to look for.
Frogs have slender bodies with smooth, wet skin.
The long hind legs of frogs help them jump longer distances than the shorter
legs of toads.
Most frogs lay their eggs in water in clumps of floating jelly.
Frogs are always found living in or near water.
Adult toads may be found a long way from water.
Toads are covered with rough, dry skin.
Frogs like fast food, not
hamburgers, but food that actually moves. Flies are a favorite frog
food. Unlike your tongue, a frog’s tongue is attached at the front of its
mouth. When a frog sees food, it flicks out its sticky tongue, grabs the
prey, and pulls it back into its mouth. Frogs also have tiny teeth to
hold onto their food before they swallow it whole.
Frogs lay hundreds of eggs at one
time. These eggs are held together and suspended in the water by a
jelly-like coating. The eggs usually hatch after two weeks of being laid,
releasing hundreds of tiny, black tadpoles. Tadpoles possess feathery
gills, a tail, and a streamlined body resembling small fish. Tadpoles
spend much of their time feeding on algae and other plant matter.
One month after hatching, the
tadpoles' lungs cease to work as they have developed lungs within their
bodies. Tadpoles must now come to the surface to breathe.
Four to five weeks after hatching, hind legs will appear, making the tadpole
look like it is part fish and part frog. At about six to seven weeks,
front legs grow out of the slits where the gill used to be. By the end of
three months, all four legs will be fully developed. As the tadpole
increases in size, the tail begins to disappear. The tail is reabsorbed
by the tadpole as it uses the energy stored inside the tail to help the tadpole
grow and develop into an adult frog. When the tail is absorbed, the frog
is ready to test out its new legs on dry land.
Turtles are commonly found living in
ponds, marshes, and lakes. Turtles are unique members of the reptile
family. They have scales on their legs and neck and plates that cover
their shells. Like other reptiles, turtles must shed their skin (scales
and plates) in order to grow larger. The turtles’ designs are unique;
their ribs are fused directly to their shells and their leg bones are tucked
inside their body cavities. The top and bottom shell are solidly fused on
each side, called a bridge, making it impossible for turtles to leave their
Turtles have no visible ear
openings, though some have a large, circular opening on both sides of the head,
just behind the eyes. These are tympanic membranes that cover the middle
and inner ears. Turtles have an adequate sense of smell. Many
species of turtles use their smell to scavenge for food at night. Turtles
have a good sense of sight but are unable to make sounds as they do not possess
vocal cords. The sound most often associated with turtles is a hissing as
they pull themselves inside their shells and expel air from their lungs.
Turtles are commonly seen basking on
logs in the hot summer sun. Basking raises the turtles' body temperatures
to a range where they can move more efficiently, digest food, and escape
predators. Basking also helps rid the turtles' shells of algae and the
turtles' bodies of other parasites, such as leeches.
The great blue heron is the most
commonly seen heron in the ponds, rivers, lakes, and marshes of Iowa.
They are gray-blue in color with white on the head. These enormous birds
may stand four feet tall. They are characterized by a long beak, long
neck, and a long, dagger-like bill.
Herons do not have webbed feet, and
thus, are not swimmers. They are, however, great wetland predators.
They quietly stalk their prey and will stand motionless for long periods of
time waiting for food to swim by. When a heron spies a tasty morsel
swimming about its feet, it quickly extends its long neck into the water and
grabs it with its sharp dagger-like beak. Herons will eat fish, frogs,
tadpoles, and crayfish.
Geese and Ducks
These birds are often seen on the
ponds, lakes, and marshes of Iowa. They have several adaptations that
allow them to live in the wetlands. Their webbed feet make them excellent
swimmers. Ducks and geese also have legs that are positioned farther back
on their bodies. This positioning is good for swimming, but poor for
walking on land. Most waterfowl are waterproof. They have an oil
coating on their feathers that repels water. The oil comes from a gland
near the base of the tail and is spread by the beak as they preen their
feathers. Most ducks and geese eat plants and insects found in the
water. Their beak is specialized to release water while keeping the plant
material in their mouths. Along the edge of their top beaks or bills are
tiny holes or serrations that release the water.
Swallows are birds found near
water. They fly silently and quickly over the water, scooping up insects
in their large, gaping beaks. At times, swallows can be seen just
touching the surface of the water as they capture insects. Swallows are a
benefit as they eat many insects and help control the insect population.
Swallows will eat mosquitoes, dragon flies, mayflies, and many other insects
that hatch out of the water.
There are many mammals that are
found around water, but the raccoon is the most recognizable. It is a
medium-sized, stocky mammal with a prominently masked face and ringed
tail. Raccoons also leave behind recognizable tracks that look similar to
human hands and feet because the prints contain five fingers and five toes.
Raccoons prefer to live in forests
surrounding rivers, lakes, ponds, and marshes. They will make dens in
hollow trees, or on the banks of rivers or lakes. They are nocturnal
animals, heading to the water after dark to hunt for food. Raccoons will
eat a variety of animals found in the water--clams, fish, frogs, tadpoles,
crayfish, turtles and their eggs, snails, muskrats, and the eggs of nesting
birds. Raccoons may not always be able to find their food using sight, so
they use their sensitive front paws to turn over rocks and feel for food.
The muskrat is a medium-sized animal
with blackish-brown fur, a stocky body, short legs, and a flattened, hairless,
scaly tail. They are members of the rodent family and have large incisor
teeth for gnawing on plants.
Muskrats prefer still or slow moving
water containing vegetation both in the water and along the shores. They
are commonly found in lakes, ponds and marshes. The muskrat usually digs
its home into the bank along the water; if banks are not available, it will
build its home out of vegetation in the water. The dome-shaped house is
built of grass, roots and stems. The muskrat's home may measure eight
feet in diameter and four feet in height. There is usually one nest
chamber in the home, but sometimes there are two that are hooked to the water
by tunnels. The walls of the house are usually one foot thick and are
sometimes cemented by mud. The vegetation in the walls keeps the muskrat
cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Muskrats eat primarily
vegetation. They eat the rootstocks and stems of cattails and
bullrush. Muskrats have been known to eat snails, crayfish, fish and
frogs as well. Muskrats are mostly nocturnal but will be seen out in the
day during late spring and early summer.
Dragonflies are an ancient order of
insect; their ancestors have ruled the air for 300 million years. Dragonflies
are effective predators of the wetland both in the nymph and adult
stages. Dragonfly nymphs are found exclusively in ponds, marshes, and
along lake shores. They are equipped with huge compound eyes and have
nearly a 360 degree view of the world around them. Dragonfly nymphs are
unlike their flying adult counterparts. As nymphs, they are reduced to
moving with their long spider-like legs; they use gills to breathe, and are
drab. Dragonfly nymphs use their dark brown color to help them camouflage
to their surroundings as they hunt for insects, mollusks, worms, and sometimes
small fish. When a dragonfly nymph is ready to change into the adult
form, it climbs out on a stable plant, splits its skin, and emerges as an
Adult dragonflies are equally strong
predators, catching their food on the wing. Dragonflies commonly fly at
about 25 miles per hour but are capable of spurts of speed of up to 75 miles
per hour. Dragonflies use their sharp eyesight and legs to catch their
The whirligig beetle spends most of
its time on the surface of the water. Whirligigs have two pairs of
eyes. One pair faces up to see prey on the surface, and the other pair
faces down to see prey below. The adult whirligig beetles protect
themselves from predators with an odor. Some emit a foul odor, and one
type secretes a milky substance that smells like apples. Although the
smell of apples might not be offensive to humans, it fends off their predators.
There are invertebrates (animals
without backbones) that live in ponds, marshes and lakes, yet they are not
insects. They are called crustaceans. One big difference between
insects and crustaceans is that insects have six legs, and crustaceans have
eight or more. Also, crustaceans never develop wings, so they are not
able to fly.
A common crustacean is the
crayfish. Crayfish that live in wetlands look more like small lobsters
than insects. Crayfish are decapods; they have 10 legs. The legs
vary in size and shape. Crayfish live on the bottom of ponds and, during
the day, stay hidden under rocks or in their burrows. A crayfish moves
quickly backwards if it is threatened, keeping large front pinchers available
to defend itself. Crayfish eat dead vegetation as well as small insects.
Areas of grassland may be found
around the world, each with its distinctive regional name. In North
America, grasslands are known as prairie. In Africa, grasslands are known as
Savannah. In South America, they are called the pampas; and in Asia, they are
referred to as steppe. This program mainly concentrates on the prairie
regions of North America but could easily be adapted for older children using
the other grassland regions of the world.
Rainfall and Prairies
American prairies are characterized
by vast grasslands with no trees. To the west of the prairie regions are
the Rocky Mountains and to the east, the forests. Weather patterns
generally move from west to east across the country. As these weather
systems hit the mountains, they drop large quantities of moisture on the
mountain region. Consequently, rainfall is sparse across the prairie
region, too little to support forests. The grasses closest to the
mountains receive the least amount of rain and tend to be short and tough types
of grasses. The grasses growing on the eastern part of the prairies
receive more rain from the Gulf of Mexico and tend to be the taller
varieties. There is no dividing line between the tall grass and the short
grass prairie, but an area of mixed grasses does appear.
The Lost Prairie
Less than 200 years ago, nearly
twenty-five percent of North America was covered in grass. Today that
amount is significantly less. Because it has been plowed under for
cropland and housing and used for cattle grazing, very little of the original
prairie exists. Iowa has less than 1 percent of its original prairie.
Prairies of long ago were a rich
mixture of grasses and wildflowers whose blossoms drew an abundance of
butterflies and other insects to the area. Grazing on the prairie grasses
were bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, and deer. Under the ground could be
found large towns of prairie dogs, and a variety of moles, badgers, insects,
and ferrets. Predatory animals, including the wolf, also stalked the
prairies of long ago.
Animals and Plants of the Prairie
Prairie dogs are common in the
states to our west -- Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana,
and Wyoming. Most prairie dogs live in colonies and a can be found by
their large earth mound homes. Prairie dogs often sit erect on top of
their homes; they are slightly smaller than a cat and yellowish in color.
Prairie dogs’ towns may number from 5 to 35 per town. They are cautious
little animals with one member on guard while the others feed. Their
warning call is a two-syllable bark and is issued at about 40 per minute.
Prairie dogs have hawks, coyotes, foxes, and other large mammals to fear.
Prairie dogs are territorial toward adjacent prairie dog towns. They feed
mostly on grass and forbs but will also eat grasshoppers and other
insects. Although they are burrowing animals, they are not true
hibernators. In the winter, prairie dogs may sleep for short periods of
time in really cold weather. Prairie dogs live in competition with
ranchers and their cattle. Because of this, many prairie dogs’ towns have
been poisoned or drowned out to eliminate what ranchers feel are a
nuisance. Some prairie dog colonies are being preserved in Wind Cave
National Park and Devil’s Tower National Monument.
Buffalo, or bison, were once common
on the prairies of the Midwest. They are large animals, six feet in
height and weighing about 800-2,000 pounds. Buffalo are unmistakable with
their dark brown bodies, massive heads, huge humps on their shoulders and long,
shaggy hair on their shoulders and front legs.
Buffalo are active during the day
feeding and migrating. When the native prairies were common, buffalo would
migrate north in the summer and south in the winter in search of available
Buffalo are remembered for the huge
wallows they created as they rolled in the dust to keep cool and rid themselves
of pests. Although buffalo were common during the time of the early
settlers, there are few buffalo today. Most buffalo seen today are
confined to zoos, national and state parks, or raised by private
ranchers. There were several things that caused the demise of the
buffalo: loss of prairie, competition from settler-introduced cows, and most
importantly, hunting. Buffalo were hunted by Native Americans, who
followed the buffalo as they migrated. The buffalo provided a primary
source of food and hides. Upon settlement of the Midwest, buffalo were
hunted by white settlers for sport, with hundreds being killed at a time for no
conventional use. Today, buffalo can be found roaming at Yellowstone
National Park, Wind Cave National Park and the Neil Smith Wildlife Refuge near
Prairie City, Iowa.
The badger is commonly found in open
grasslands and prairies. It is a primarily nocturnal animal but can also
be active in the early mornings. The badger is a heavy-bodied,
short-legged, yellowish-gray mammal. It has characteristic markings such
as a white stripe that runs from the tip of its nose over the top of its head,
white cheeks, and a black spot in front of each ear. Badgers are most
commonly known for their extremely long claws on their front paws, exceeding
one inch in length, and their great ability to dig. Badgers dig for their
food which consists of small burrowing rodents. Badgers also dig their
own burrows. A badger digs by loosening the soil with its front feet,
passing the dirt under its body, and kicking dirt out of the hole with its back
feet. Sometimes dirt is removed so vigorously, it is thrown four to five
feet high. Badgers have to dig quickly to catch burrowing animals and to
escape from enemies. A badger can dig faster than a man with a
shovel. Badgers usually have three babies a year, and the mother takes
good care of her young. Badgers have few to no predators that harm them,
although coyotes have been known to eat young badgers. Badgers are
aggressive animals and are well armed with those one-inch claws. Their
only enemies seem to be people and dogs.
A pronghorn antelope, primarily a
North American mammal, is found on the open grasslands and prairies in the
West. It is medium-sized with pale, tan fur. It can be
distinguished from deer by its large white rump, white sides, two white bands
across the throat, and its two slightly curved horns. It gets its name
from the single prong that projects forward from each horn. The pronghorn
antelope is active mainly during the day, early morning, and evening.
Pronghorns usually occur in small bands. Pronghorns are chiefly browsing
animals and eat grass, weeds, and sagebrush. When frightened, they escape
and can reach speeds up to 40 miles per hour. They commonly live 14 years
in the wild and usually have two young a year.
Monarch butterflies are one of the
most common butterflies found on the prairie. Their orange and black
colors make them easy to spot. Although monarchs are colorful, they don’t
worry about being seen and eaten as they have a horrendous taste that wards off
the hungriest of predators. Monarchs are common to the prairie because of
the abundance of milkweed plants. The female monarch lays her small eggs
on the undersides of milkweed leaves. After about 10-16 days, small
black, white, and yellow caterpillars hatch from the eggs. They are
ravenous creatures, eating on the milkweed plant day and night. Over the
course of this time, they will shed their skins four or five times. After
about a month, the caterpillars spin a silk pad on the underside of the leaf
and attach their tails to them; here is where they shed their skin for the last
time. A soft chrysalis forms around the caterpillar and gradually
hardens. Fluids in the caterpillar break down and re-form to make the
butterfly. After 7-10 days, the chrysalis splits open and out struggles a
beautiful monarch butterfly. The butterfly hangs upside down for 20
minutes so its wings can dry and harden. Then it flies away into the
prairie. Monarch butterflies that hatch early in the summer go on to lay
more eggs. Monarch butterflies that hatch late in the summer will migrate
south into the mountains of Mexico for the winter.
Snakes are reptiles possessing an
elongated, scaly body without legs, eyelids, or external ear openings.
Snakes are cold-blooded animals and need to warm their bodies by basking in the
sun. The prairie offers excellent habitat for snakes as prairies are
frequently dry and hot. All snakes are carnivores. They are able to
swallow their prey whole, because they have the ability to unhinge their jaw
Garter snakes are a common species
of snake found in the prairies in Iowa. Garter snakes bear live young
during the summer. They hibernate during the winter in large community
Big bluestem is a common grass found on the tallgrass prairie.
This coarse, leafy grass occurs in large clumps and forms dense sod. Its
growth usually begins in April and continues throughout the summer. The
root system of this perennial grass is immense, with coarse branches throughout
the top soil and some roots extending to depths of 12 feet. The stems of
big bluestem grow to heights of 8 feet and are bluish in color, giving rise to
the name. The plant produces a seed head at the top of the stem.
Many of the seed heads grow in three sections. When separated, these sections
look like a bird’s foot, hence the nickname turkey’s foot.
Switchgrass is another common grass of the tallgrass prairie.
This grass also grows in dense colonies beginning in early spring and
continuing through the summer. Its stout, erect stem grows to between 3-6
feet tall and is green to purplish in color. Large, loose seed heads tend
to form at the top of the stem. During pioneer times, a bundle of switch
grass was commonly found in the school house and used on unruly students.
Compass Plant is a flowering plant that grows from a thick, deeply penetrating
taproot. It can reach a height of 8 feet tall. The leaves grow to 1 foot
long and 6 inches wide. The leaves are irregularly lobed and tend to
orient themselves in a north-south direction, hence the common name. The
compass plant produces a showy, yellow flower head, much like those of the wild
sunflower. They bloom July through August.
What Are Woodlands?
Woodlands or forests are commonly
defined as a biological community of plants and animals dominated by
trees. In Iowa, the trees are usually deciduous hardwoods. As you
move farther north, the coniferous forests dominate.
Plants and Animals of the Canopy
The canopy trees are large leafy
trees that produce a variety of food for wildlife.
The white oak and red oak
are two of Iowa’s largest canopy trees. Oak trees produce an abundance of
acorns for wildlife. Shagbark hickory and black walnuts are
also common canopy trees found in Iowa, both producing edible nuts.
The high treetops of the canopy are
home mainly to birds of prey. Red-tailed hawks use the treetops
for nesting. Their large nests are made with sticks and lined with shreds
of bark and bits of fresh green vegetation. Hawks frequently use the
treetops to perch and search for prey. Their excellent eye sight can spot
the slightest movement. Their large talons and sharp beak hold and tear
Plants and Animals of the Understory
Understory plants grow under the
canopy trees and are shade-tolerant. They generally are smaller trees and
produce an abundance of fruit and berries for wildlife. Chokecherry,
ironwood, white pine, and red cedar are all understory trees.
Squirrels are small mammals
perfectly suited for life in the trees where they find food, shelter, and
safety from their enemies. Squirrels are quick, agile, and sure
footed. Their claws are good for climbing, and their tails make an
excellent counter balance.
Squirrels have large chisel-like
front teeth that are used for cracking nuts. These front incisor teeth
continue to grow, but are worn down by gnawing on hard objects and food.
Squirrels have an excellent sense of smell. This helps them locate buried
food. Their acute sense of sight and hearing also alerts them to danger.
They are hunted by several predators, including snakes, large birds, weasels,
Squirrels like to build nests inside
the cavities of old trees. When a suitable cavity cannot be found, squirrels
will build a nest called a drey out of twigs and leaves in the fork of two
branches high up in the tree.
Squirrels do not hibernate during
the winter, although they periodically spend long intervals in their nests
during bad weather. Since food is scarce during the winter, squirrels
gather food during the fall and store it for winter use. They use their
sense of smell, not their memory, to locate the food.
There are 20 different species of
woodpeckers that inhabit North America, the most common being the downy
woodpecker. Woodpeckers are characterized by their sharp, pointed
beaks that tap into the trunks of trees seeking wood-boring insects. To
help extract these insects, the woodpecker also has a long, pointed tongue that
is barbed on the end. Most species of woodpeckers make their nests in
holes in trees.
Woodpeckers have the ability to move
vertically up and down trees. Their specialized feet have two claws
pointing forward and two pointing backward. They also possess a compact
body with a short, stiff tail that is used as a prop while they tap into trees.
Plants and Animals of the Woodland
Spring is the best time to take
young children out into the woods. The woodland flowers are in bloom at
this time. Bloodroot gets its name from the red liquid in the
plant’s root. When broken, this oozes out and looks like blood.
This red sap is poisonous if swallowed, but has been used as both facial paint
and a dye. Dutchman’s breeches is another spring flowering plant,
its white blossoms resemble a pair of breeches hanging upside down.
Many animals are found on the
woodland floor and in the shrubs. White-tailed deer are frequently
found in Iowa woodlands, where the shrubs offer good camouflage and plenty of
food. The adults are tan or reddish brown in color with a white
under-tail which the deer displays to communicate danger. The young
fawn’s back is covered with light-colored spots to help hide the animal on the
Adult deer will frequently leave the
fawn for extended periods to find food. The fawn will remain silent and
motionless, camouflaged by its spots and coloring. Fawns do not have any scent,
making it difficult for predators to locate them.
Eastern chipmunks are a ground species inhabiting woodlands. They feed
on acorns and hickory nuts and will climb trees to retrieve them for winter
storage in their underground homes. They will also eat slugs, snails, and
small invertebrates they find while tunneling underground. Chipmunks
sleep through the winter, although they will wake up and eat some of the stored
Leaf litter, rotting logs, and the
soil under the ground level provide numerous habitats for other woodland
animals including sow bugs, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, and worms.
Their job as decomposers of the dead plant matter plays an essential role in
the healthy woodland community.
From Nature Boxes for Early
Childhood Educators, Debbi Williams, Story County Conservation Board
Story County Conservation
Linda R. F. Zaletel
56461 180th St.
Ames, IA 50010
go to “Conservation and Parks”