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The nature of Kauffman Stadium

Where wildlife isn’t just the visiting team’s fans.

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Kauffman Stadium Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There is life in the concrete prairie that surrounds Kauffman Stadium. Despite the surficial sterility of a modern sports complex, a variety of species have developed their own ecosystem in this man-made environment. The conditions seem harsh, but so are many settings more removed from human influence. A grey expanse of pavement simmering in the sun evokes a recently active lava field; a close-mowed lawn mirrors the stubble of a recently grazed grassland; the isolated trees form an oasis, providing shelter and food as in a native savannah. A stadium is a habitat, too, one we can study and enjoy on its own merits.

European-Americans have long thought of nature as something to set aside and protect, something removed from everyday life. Unlike Europe, where virtually all landscapes have been actively cultivated and shaped by humans for thousands of years, many immigrants saw North America as an untouched wilderness. Its original human residents were dismissed as little more than wild animals living in nature, rather than civilized people molding a landscape as suited to their culture as Europe was to its own residents. More recent studies have focused on a new picture, of a North America long shaped by active and intentional human practices: the great prairies maintained by intentional burning, the eastern forests kept open by dedicated management, the very makeup of flora and fauna defined by active human choices. Yet in the more traditional view, North America was a unique haven of wilderness perfection, to be preserved in some places and exploited in others, but rarely managed as an integrated whole. How else to explain our willingness to evict long-established human communities from many nascent National Parks, but our quiet acquiescence to the near-total destruction of the great North American prairies?

We are still driven by this distinction between nature and humanity; how many would accept a baseball stadium in Yellowstone or a Truman Sports Complex National Park? Yet increasingly, the ecological community is debating the very meaning of “nature”, whether it is something we can set aside or find everywhere. Science writers like Emma Marris (Rambunctious Garden) and Fred Pearce (The New Wild) advocate for seeing nature everywhere, and for accepting that humans are inexorably altering planetary ecosystems. There are no truly pristine reserves, or truly lost causes, only gradations of influence.

Kauffman Stadium is an ecosystem, and if we open our eyes, we can appreciate its merits. To create it, we unleashed bulldozer glaciers that leveled hillsides and filled in valleys; uncorked concrete lava flows in forms subtle and fantastic; created a lighting array of new suns and stars that alter the area’s biological clock. Yet after all this disruption, ecology did what it always does: adapt. Some species declined; others thrived, making the new ecosystem their home.

Western Kingbird in Kansas Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the best example arrives in late spring on muted grey wings: the voracious and subtly beautiful Western Kingbird. Chasing and devouring a wide variety of insect life, these relatives of the common household Eastern Phoebe have made a summer home at Kauffman Stadium for many years. They spend the winter in Central America, migrating north to spend the breeding season across most of the American West, where they favor open areas with high places to perch, nest and pursue insects. Their range and population has expanded since the 1800s, benefitting from the planting of trees in prairies and the clearing of forests in the Midwest. They are known to have a particular affinity for baseball stadiums, with their high complex structures perfect for nesting and perching, and their artificial lights drawing in clouds of invertebrate convenience food. Kauffman Stadium represents a hotspot for Western Kingbirds at the eastern edge of their general range.

Watching kingbirds fits well into the flow of a baseball game, especially for those like me who tend to sit in the upper decks and thus bring binoculars anyway. The birds perch on stadium guy wires, far superior to natural vines, and make acrobatic sorties into the clouds of insects overhead. Occasionally they dive low toward the field, interrupting the game as a decidedly non-avian-oriented broadcaster lamely attempts to identify the “goldfinch” as it zips past the plate. Between innings, pitchers, and batters, the kingbirds draw my attention, as do their insect prey. Once your eyes refocus, you start to see the sheer diversity of insect life drawn to the nighttime noon; large white moths, small darting . . . somethings, a whole population of life suddenly visible. Now you begin watching other trends: do the doves and pigeons use different parts of the stadium than the kingbirds; are there bats competing for airspace; are there different insects near the lower concourse or the nosebleed seats? If you’re a regular attendee, do you see changes in kingbird behavior over time, as the birds build their nests, brood their eggs, raise their young?

By the end of July, their nesting completed, the kingbirds begin to vanish, drawn back toward Central America even while the heat of summer remains. Perhaps a long road trip turns off the lights for long enough to trigger a response, and the kingbirds of summer become a memory until next year. But in the meantime, the concrete prairie has drawn in a bird that might otherwise have stayed on the “real” thing, giving tens of thousands of us a chance to integrate nature into our lives through a most unlikely setting. And if we can connect to nature in an ecosystem whose parking lots suppress biodiversity and home runs alike, how many other places can we learn to find and enjoy the natural world around us?

More about Western Kingbirds:

· The Royal Kingbirds of Kauffman Stadium, Missouri Conservationist, 2011.

· An avian show at Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City Star, 2012.

· Reported range maps for Western Kingbirds, eBird (zoom in to Kauffman for local reports)

· Western Kingbird life history, Cornell Lab of Ornithology