California Prairie

Looking out over a dry, brown field of grasses in August may not inspire a sense of wonder in the hearts of many observers, but to those in the know, the California prairie habitat before them is a sleeping beauty. Fall rains will begin the awakening of wildflower seeds that have lain dormant over the long, hot summer. In spring, purple lupines, orange poppies, and yellow goldfields will dot the landscape with cheery blooms. Historically, California prairie was covered with a colorful spring carpet of wildflowers with a mixture of native bunchgrasses that would remain green through the summer.

Fascinating Features

  • Remaining areas of California prairie are highly invaded by non-native annual grasses from the Mediterranean region of Europe that turn brown in the summer heat. In areas where non-native grasses are suppressed by natural conditions or by active management, native annual wildflowers may still be present in sufficient densities to put on a breathtaking spring show.
  • Much of the remaining California prairie was spared from development because of its economic value for cattle grazing. Similar to the herds of tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) that historically roamed these areas, cattle can be grazed at appropriate levels and times to help maintain vegetation conditions that favor the native forbs over non-native grasses, and cattle or other grazers such as sheep are often used as a management strategy on prairie preserves.
  • Prairie soils do not support trees and shrubs because their hardpans and clay horizons keep most water too close to the soil surface for deeply rooted species to thrive.

Habitat Values

Many native wildlife species rely on California prairie habitat for different portions of their life—from tiny insects that use only a specific species of prairie wildflower as the host plant to feed their larvae, to large birds of prey that hunt for insects, rodents, and reptiles to support their growing chicks during nesting season. Large tracts of California prairie are critical to the survival of many species that call our area home.

Ground squirrels

In the Sacramento region, the California ground squirrel (Otospermophilus beecheyi) serves as a keystone species in California prairie, creating extensive burrow systems that may be used by many other wildlife species and that help improve soil conditions for native wildflowers by aerating the soil and incorporating organic material into deeper soil layers.

Amphibians

Amphibians that need cool, damp conditions to survive, such as the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), and western toad (Anaxyrus boreas), use ground squirrel burrows to wait out the summer heat in climate-controlled comfort.

Burrowing owls

The tiny Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) isn't your typical owl. Unlike other tree-dwelling, nocturnal owls native to our area, such as the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), Burrowing Owls, as their name suggests, live in burrows. Underground networks excavated by ground squirrels or other animals provide these small owls with a safe retreat and protected nest site.