Grasslands, not just for the birds, but the amphibians, and the mammals too!

While our program focuses largely on the “bird” portion of the IBA program – the full title is actually “Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas”. Today Nate is going to continue his grassland series and let us know about a few of the non-bird Species at Risk that call the live in our Manitoba grasslands.

As we’ve discussed in the previous posts, many a bird graces these grasslands with its presence. Along with our flappy friends, however, you will find a large number of unique animals without wings that call the Manitoba grasslands home. Some of these critters are rather helpful for birds, others pose great threats, while still others have little interactions with birds at all.

Manitoba grasslands house a number of Species at Risk that can be found on the ground or small patches of water. You might be asking “Water? But I thought we were talking about grasslands!”. Well, amongst grasslands you will find many small pieces of wetlands sometimes called prairie potholes, as well as agricultural dugouts, ditches, and depressions in the ground caused by animal activity. The water-storing ability of these areas to hold water provides breeding habitat for amphibians such as the Great Plains Toad and the Plains Spadefoot Toad, both of which are Species at Risk. These two toads can be found or heard in the southwest corner of the province after a heavy rain.

Great Plains Toad. Photo by Shauna Hewson, Manitoba Herps Atlas.

These toads also depend on soft soils in open grasslands that allow them to burrow and wait out cold and/or dry periods. Plains Spadefoot Toads are named for the shovel-like projection on their hind legs that aid them in digging burrows. Despite their common name, Plains Spadefoot Toads are in the family Pelobatoidea, a unique family that is neither a true frog or toad. In contrast the true toads, such as the Great Plains Toad, belong in the family Bufonidae. Frogs and toads can be an important food source for birds that are adapted to picking prey out of water or sand like herons, gulls and kingfishers.

Plains Spadefoot Toad. They use the “spade” on the heel of their feet to dig backwards into sandy soil. Photo by Manitoba Herps Atlas.
The “spade” on the heel of  the foot of a Plains Spadefoot Toad. Photo by Manitoba Herps Atlas.

You can find all sorts of holes in our grasslands created by a variety of fossorial animals, which is a fancy way of saying they are good at digging and will spend some time living underground. If you recall a previous post, you might be thinking that I’m about to tell you about our friend the Burrowing Owl. Well, sorry to disappoint you but I’m going to introduce you to an abundant, yet quite secretive, mammal found in the southwest prairies of Manitoba. The American Badger is a large member of the weasel family with immense strength and ferocity. Their compact body is highly adapted for digging burrows to live in as well as digging up prey. Although their abandoned burrows provide beneficial habitat for Burrowing Owls, these animals are highly opportunistic and will feed on small grassland birds and their eggs. The American badger is currently under review for special concern status under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA).

American Badger. Photo by Nature Canada.

Oh “dear”, I nearly forgot about the cervids, or as they’re known by most, members of the deer family! The most common members of this family found here are the aptly named white-tailed Deer, which can be found galloping and bounding away from danger waving their white tail as a warning sign to nearby friends or family. A close relative of the White-tailed Deer, the Mule Deer can be found primarily in the southwest corner of Manitoba and is provincially listed as threatened. The Mule Deer holds many similarities to the white-tail but the easiest method for identification is to watch how it moves. Mule deer have a unique method of traveling called ‘pronking’ which looks a lot more like bouncing than running. All four hooves land and leave the ground at the same time to create a vision of ‘giant pogo sticks’ jumping across the grasslands. If the deer in question decides not to show off its running style, you can check for a large white rump patch decorated with a thin white tail with a black point on the end. On males the antlers are bifurcating and do not curl inwards like a white-tailed deer. Mule deer have larger, donkey-shaped ears (hence their name), a whiter nose and mouth and a contrasting brown forehead patch.

Mule Deer. Look at those ears! Photo by The National Wildlife Federation.

I’m going to finish off by briefly talking about an extremely rare visitor to the Southwest of our province. I present to you the fastest land mammal in North America, the Pronghorn! Originally thought to be extirpated from Manitoba since 1886, the pronghorn was rediscovered in 2019 just south of Manitou. This speedy mammal can reach speeds up to 100km/h and is happiest in the arid plains of Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The pronged horns on these animals, which also are present in females albeit smaller, make them highly distinct. Their caramel and white colouration makes them blend into the dry grasslands of the Southern prairies when running their little heart out isn’t an option.

Pronghorn. Photo by Steven Mlodinow,

The grasslands of Manitoba provide us with ample agriculture, hunting and recreation opportunities. Although these activities can be conducted harmoniously with the natural world, we must take steps in ensuring these creatures and ecosystems will be around for generations to come.

-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz