Much farmland in southeastern Pennsylvania is devoted to raising field corn. Cornfields are human-made habitats that have stages of succession, from bare ground to rows of tall corn plants, to short stubble after being harvested. And each stage is inhabited by certain adaptable kinds of wildlife.

Corn is planted in bare soil early in May. Killdeer plovers and horned larks are adapted to raising young on bare ground, or nearly so. Each female killdeer lays her four speckled eggs right on the soil.

But larks dig teacup-sized nurseries in bare ground, where each female deposits her eggs. Birds of both species are brown on top, which camouflages them against soil.

Some clutches of eggs are laid in rows of corn where they won’t be disturbed by cultivators trying to remove weeds. Nests between rows might be destroyed by cultivators.

The handsome killdeer and larks, and their eggs and chicks, blend into bare soil and are invisible until they move, which usually keeps them safe from hawks and other predators.

Baby killdeer are fluffy and hunt for invertebrate food soon after hatching. But lark chicks are born helpless and stay in their soil cradles for a couple of weeks. There they are fed invertebrates by both parents.

When fields of cornstalks are 8 and more feet tall, they look a little like woods or cattail marshes. They now offer food and shelter to a variety of adaptable wildlife. Elegant white-tailed deer and rascally raccoons ingest corn kernels while they are soft on the ears.

Grasshoppers eat the leaves of weeds and grasses on the sunny edges of cornfields. Butterflies, bees, and other insects sip the nectar of some weeds’ lovely flowers.

Field mice and groups of house sparrows feed on weed and grass seeds. Some of those mice, grasshoppers, and birds are caught and eaten by American kestrels, a type of hawk.

I’ve also seen post-breeding American robins and barn swallows flying into tall, sheltering cornfields at dusk. There they spend the night, as robins do in woods and swallows do in cattail marshes.

And I’ve seen a few lovely male indigo buntings singing in cornfields by late July, just as if they were establishing nesting territories in wooded thickets.

Corn is harvested in September, locally, leaving acres of short-stubble banquet tables. Attractive flocks of rock pigeons, mourning doves, Canada geese, mallard ducks, American crows, individual field mice, and other kinds of wild creatures feed on corn kernels lying on the ground among the stubble through autumn and winter.

Adaptable wildlife is interesting to experience in cornfields the year around, mainly because those species make use of human-made situations. The creatures have additional food and shelter sources, and we can enjoy experiencing them.   


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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