The Red Buffalo


CTL fire

The Red Buffalo

Indians called prairie fires the “red buffalo.”  Fire has always been a component of the prairie ecosystem, from dry lightning and from the deliberate burning by Native Americans.  Fires started in late winter-early spring warmed up the earth by removing the thick mulch of dead grasses, allowing sun and rain to penetrate the ground; in addition, the blackened ashes absorb the sun’s warming rays and add essential nutrients to the soil.  The early emerging, tender, green grass shoots attracted the buffalo to feed, allowing the Indians to replenish their supply of meat.  Ranchers today still follow the same practice, setting fire to their pastures in order to create earlier and more abundant grassland for foraging.

Burning destroys woody invaders and shallow-rooted alien annuals, biennials, and perennials, induces more seeds to germinate, and makes for sturdier plants.  An early spring burn favors the growth of warm season grasses and legumes, while an autumnal burn favors forbs, according to Shirley Shirley in Restoring the Tall Grass Prairie.

Burn, Baby, Burn

before burn 2016

My Front Yard  March 28, 2016

Fire 2016

Controlled Burn:  March 29, 2016

after burn 2016 2Done!





13 Responses to The Red Buffalo

  1. Suzanne Massion April 1, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    Tom Vanderpoel got our prairie burned Mar. 29th, just in the nick of time, before more rain soaked us. Not sure we will be able to burn smaller patches in the woods with more rain and possible snow still predicted. Bloodroot, wild ginger, Virginia Bluebells, False Solomon Seal in evidence everywhere. Looking for the Eastern Blue Birds to claim their house, but I think some Tree Swallows have their eyes on it. More brief snow, notwithstanding, it really feels like Spring. Yaaaay!

    • PatHill April 2, 2016 at 6:25 pm #

      You burned the same day I did–a perfect day. Only a few of my Bloodroot and Dutchman’s Breeches have appeared and are in bloom. I hope there is more to come.

      • Suzanne Massion April 3, 2016 at 11:41 am #

        Then there was YESTERDAY! Whiteouts, then sunshine, snow, then melting, gale like winds. Bloodroot had not opened yet. It’s supposed to hit 60 today and then get colder tomorrow. Yikes.

  2. Stephanie April 1, 2016 at 6:54 pm #

    I understand burns, but do you find yourself concerned at all about overwintering butterflies, moths, and native bees that can’t survive fire? Xerces Society and others recommend rotational burns and extended periods between burns.

    • PatHill April 2, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

      There is controversy about this. Dr. Gerould Wilhelm recommenda a yearly autumnal burn, which is not a total burn, but a patchy one. The fire rejuvenates the forbs and grasses, thereby expanding their number and improving the nutritional value of the plants to the benefit of the bees and butterflies, increasing their numbers.

      Does anyone else have thoughts on this?

      • Suzanne Massion April 3, 2016 at 11:47 am #

        I think we have opted, so far, for the annual spring burn, leaving the seed stalks over fall and winter for the birds to feed on. The snow cover over the prairie also seems to offer sanctuary for a number o critters.

  3. Jason April 2, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

    I have some prairie grasses and I wonder – what is the long-term effect of not burning? I don’t think burning will ever be an option for me. Also, do you know of any books that are natural histories of the North American prairie? Reading 1491 really made me interested in this.

    • PatHill April 2, 2016 at 6:12 pm #

      I don’t think there will be any effect on individual prairie grasses–burning is beneficial to a large natural area. The best book I can recommend is A Natural History of the Chicago Region by Joel Greenberg. Knowledgable, extremely well-written, I recommend it to everyone.

  4. June Keibler April 6, 2016 at 8:35 am #

    Great promotion Pat. We burn every year, both our yard and Snuffy’s prairie. We do not have prairie or woodland remnant plant communities that may harbor very rare insects that may be negatively affected by burning. Snuffy’s and our yard seem to get more insects each year.

    • Pat Hill April 7, 2016 at 11:25 am #

      Jerry Wilhelm’s theory is that burning increases the amount of forbs and grasses, which in turn provides more food for the insects. With more food, the insects increase in population.

  5. Stephanie April 8, 2016 at 5:35 pm #

    Once you understand the how many butterflies, moths, bees, and other beneficial insects overwinter, you can understand the impact a complete burn on the entire site every year. Great-spangled fritillaries, Pearl Crescents, Duskywings, etc all overwinter near their host plants.

    There has been a large disconnect between botanists and entomologists. I understand the role of prescribed fire in large natural areas, and they tend be done in patches on a rotational basis, which is science-based.

    The insect population increases as long as the next year’s animals are able to survive the winter/spring, etc. If all of the butterfly/moth larvae/ chrysalides on your property are destroyed because of fire (or mowing, raking everything out, etc), the yard then functions as an ecological sink.

    As I said, I totally understand fire and its necessary function in the natural landscape, but now with small isolated fragments of habitat makes it much harder for animals to have any kind of resilient population. It used to be there were millions of acres that acted as refuge for overwintering animals so that if one area lost its population the animals could recolonize fairly easily.

  6. Pat Terry April 24, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    Can we do this in Chicago? I live near Lincoln Park Zoo on the typical 25×135 foot lot, with a brick townhouse complex on one long side and a wooden stockade fence on the other.

    If not a controlled burn, which I assume is outlawed here, what can I do instead?


  7. Pat Terry April 24, 2016 at 4:07 pm #

    We live in Chicago near Lincoln Park Zoo on a 25×135 lot, with a wooden stockade fence bordering on of the long sides and a brick townhouse complex along the other.
    I’m sure the city does not permit controlled burns.

    What can I do with my back yard instead?

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