Monarch butterfly with tag.

© Jerry Jelinek

The grassy fields you see at Cuyahoga Valley National Park used to be forest. The park’s meadows were once farm fields, rock quarrying sites, or other land people cleared of trees. When the land was abandoned, switchgrass, bromegrass, timothy, and other grasses began to grow, creating meadow ecosystems. Once grassland plants take hold, the ecosystem’s food chain develops. Insects, voles, mice, and birds that feed on grasses, sedges, and flowering plants soon show up. Once there’s prey to eat, predators like hawks, owls, snakes, foxes, and coyotes quickly follow. The old field meadow ecosystems of Cuyahoga Valley are full of brightly colored life. Goldenrod, milkweed, and asters bloom with flowers visited by dozens of different butterflies. Grassland songbirds, including meadowlarks and savannah sparrow come to eat, breed, and nest.

Important Meadow “Weeds”

Two of the meadow ecosystem’s members have an especially close connection. Like many butterflies, black and orange adult monarchs drink the nectar of goldenrod and other wildflowers. The national park is an important feeding and rest stop for monarchs migrating south to Mexico in early September. Summer breeding monarchs also take advantage of another of the park’s meadow plants—milkweed. Monarchs have a special relationship with milkweed. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. Without milkweed, monarch caterpillars can’t grow into butterflies. The secret is what’s in the milkweed. The plant has toxins that don’t hurt the monarchs, but builds up in the skin and makes them poisonous. When a bird eats a monarch, it has a minor heart attack and spits out its dangerous meal.

Aerial view of Richfield Coliseum.

NPS Collection

From Basketball to Bobolinks

One of Cuyahoga Valley’s largest grassland areas was once a basketball arena. When the old home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Richfield Coliseum, was torn down, acres of asphalt parking lots were also removed. Now it’s a 327-acre restored grassland and wildflower meadow. The former Coliseum site is large enough to attract rare grassland birds, like Henslow’s sparrows. They come during the summer to breed and make their fragile nests down among the thick grasses. National Audubon has given the remarkable site Important Bird Area status.

One of the grassland birds you can see at the former Coliseum site is the bobolink. These birds winter in South America, where they are a dull yellow-brown color. In the spring, bobolinks fly to Cuyahoga Valley to breed and nest. The meadow ecosystem of the former Coliseum site has plenty of seeds and insects for bobolinks to eat, and the grasses they need to nest in. Before arriving in Ohio, a male bobolink molts into a new coat of glossy black and white feathers. This helps him to impress a mate. Once breeding season is over, he changes back to his dull coat.

If left alone, the meadow ecosystems of Cuyahoga Valley won’t stay grasslands for very long. Over time, bushes, thickets, and then trees will move in. This natural process, called succession, changes the landscape back to the forest it once was. It’s another example of the ever-changing ecosystems of the Cuyahoga Valley.

Last updated: May 9, 2022

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