Thursday, November 25, 2004

Wild Turkeys in Illinois

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With all of the Thanksgiving Day press devoted to domestic turkeys—how many we’re going to eat this week, how best to cook them, etcetera—you probably weren’t aware of this fact, but we’re living in the age of the wild turkey. That’s according to Patrick Hubert, a wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey. Says Hubert, “It is a good time to be alive if you are a turkey, turkey hunter, or turkey biologist in Illinois.”

This has not always been the case.

Wild turkeys were abundant in Illinois prior to European settlement, but their numbers declined steadily during the 1800s due to over-hunting and the clearing of forests, which are a necessary component of turkey habitat. The state legislature closed turkey hunting in 1903, in an effort to preserve the remaining populations. That measure proved to be too little too late, though, and by 1910 wild turkeys had been eliminated from Illinois altogether.

Some turkey habitat was regained as marginal farms in the southern and western parts of the state were abandoned and returned to forest during the first half of the twentieth century. This fact gave hope to state efforts at turkey reintroduction, which began in 1959. The birds involved in this program were obtained from other states where turkey populations had already rebounded in exchange for animals that were doing well here—Canada geese, largemouth bass, bobwhite quail. From the 1970s through the year 2000 Illinois also transplanted turkeys from areas where they were thriving to suitable habitat that had not yet been re-colonized.

Illinois now boasts wild turkeys in just about every habitat that will support them, and recent estimates put the state population at 135,000. Harvests by hunters break records from one year to the next, with this year’s spring take statewide surpassing fifteen thousand birds.

Whether you hunt them or appreciate them from a distance, wild turkeys are fascinating birds. For one thing, they’re big. Adult males, or gobblers, measure about four feet from bill tip to tail tip and weigh from seventeen to twenty-one pounds on average. Hens are smaller, measuring closer to three feet long and generally weighing from eight to eleven pounds, but they are still large birds. Despite their size wild turkeys can also be very fast when they need to be. They can hit speeds up to twenty-five miles per hour running, and they can fly at speeds of up to fifty-miles an hour in short bursts to escape from predators.

While most of us weren’t noticing their comeback, grain farmers were developing the suspicion that wild turkeys were damaging crops. A recent study by researchers in Indiana exonerated them on that charge, though.

Turkeys had been tagged as suspects because they show up during daylight hours in corn and soybean fields where crop damage has occurred at night. The real culprits turn out to be deer and raccoons, whose nocturnal activity accounted for ninety-five percent of the damage in the fields studied. The suspect turkeys, it turns out, were dining on waste grain and insects.

Would the wild turkey have made a better national symbol than the bald eagle? Most people know that Benjamin Franklin thought so. I’ve never been able to see that myself, but I take great pleasure in knowing that they’re back to stay in Illinois.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Pitch for Book, Creating Habitats and Homes for Illinois Wildlife

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Are you nagged by the feeling you should’ve done some holiday gift shopping already? Here’s a natural solution to ease some of your discomfort. It’s a book published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the University of Illinois called Creating Habitats and Homes for Illinois Wildlife.

Now if the title of this book conjures up images of a how-to manual for building birdhouses, please listen, because that’s not what it’s about. The book does contain extensive practical advice, but it’s advice about creating landscapes that are hospitable to wild creatures.

Before I talk about the practical aspects of the book, though, I want to emphasize that it contains other elements that will make it attractive to folks who have no immediate plans to makeover their property.

Chief among these are the many first class photographs that call to mind the plants, animals, and landscapes we Illinoisians have to protect and restore. These include striking images of common creatures—red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, white-tailed deer and the like. Such images are complemented by equally artful depictions of uncommon subjects: a stunning shot of fungi on a rotting log; a short eared owl arrested in flight, its intense gaze fixed on the viewer; a tight shot of a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar, its lurid green and yellow skin and oversized false eyes reminiscent of a creature out of science fiction.

In addition to its beautiful photographs, Creating Homes and Habitats provides readers with important information for understanding wildlife issues. For example, one chapter provides historical perspective, explaining how agriculture and other development over the past two-hundred years has left Illinois forty-ninth among the states in the amount of intact natural areas remaining. Another chapter includes an overview of ecological principles. This helps people understand why it makes sense to do things one way or another on their own land, and also helps citizens participate in matters of how to manage land held by other private entities, and public policy.

The practical chapters of Creating Homes and Habitat are divided according to habitat types: there is a chapter on grasslands including prairies, a chapter on woodlands, a chapter on wetlands and other aquatic habitat, and a chapter on agricultural areas.

More to the point for most people, who live in urban or suburban settings, this book provides practical direction for managing backyards and other small tracts for wildlife. As the authors point out, while many of our individual yards are not large, their collective value is quite significant; residential areas cover 2.5% of the state.

When our yards are landscaped with wildlife in mind they serve to maintain healthy populations of the resident species we enjoy seeing—toads, garter snakes, cardinals and cottontails—and they provide a crucial network of stopovers for migratory birds in the spring and fall.

The book, Creating Homes and Habitats for Illinois Wildlife can help you or someone on your gift list provide and important boost for wildlife in our state.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Threats to National Environmental Policy

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By the time last week’s election took place, the lack of attention to environmental issues in the campaign had become its own news story. That’s unfortunate, because it allowed candidates to run without articulating positions on matters that most Americans hold dear. And in the past four years, the Bush administration has pursued a series of radical challenges to the national legislation that has done us so much good in the past thirty years—legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Some of the threats to these laws aroused such broad opposition that the administration was forced to abandon them, but others were simply put on hold. These threats are sure to be reasserted in the next four years. If we’re not vigilant in opposing them, we stand to lose a lot of hard-fought ground.

Take the Clean Water Act, for example. Passed by Congress in 1972 and signed by Richard Nixon, it has marked the beginning of a broad recovery for our nation’s rivers and lakes. The policy of the current administration has been directed toward narrowing enforcement of the Clean Water Act, putting at risk wetlands and waters that have in the past been protected. We’re talking about twenty million acres of wetlands and other waters that provide wildlife habitat, protect us from floods, and recharge our groundwater supplies.

The Clean Air Act, last revised in 1990 and designed to reduce air pollution over time, has also been subjected to threats that would greatly diminish its effectiveness. Most notable among these are rule changes that would allow thousands of aging industrial facilities including power plants, refineries, and chemical plants to be updated and expanded without the improvements in pollution control that the Clean Air Act was designed to require.

The Endangered Species Act, passed by bipartisan majorities in the house and senate and signed by Nixon in 1973, has also been the target of systematic attacks under the Bush administration. These have included the refusal of Bush agency officials to comply with court orders, the dismissal of scientific input when it conflicted with administration goals, failure to request necessary funding, and footdragging on the matter of listing new species.

It would be pleasing to think that we could determine the condition of the environment we leave for future generations by our good will and individual efforts—things like driving less, conserving energy at home, cutting down on our use of harmful chemicals.

But individual efforts are only part of a larger equation.

We’re where we are today because we the people have acted through our elected representatives to protect our water, our air, our natural heritage—public goods all—through sensible regulation. Let’s not lose sight of that in the next four years.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Busey Woods Boardwalk

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There are many reasons not to get outdoors at this time of year: short days, cool temperatures, wind, rain, you name it. But the rewards of an excursion into the woods do not disappear with the departure of agreeable weather. And thanks to the recent completion of a half-mile long boardwalk, you can now enjoy Busey Woods in Urbana without even getting your feet muddy.

On the chance you’re not familiar with it, Busey Woods is a fifty-nine-acre natural area adjacent to the Anita Purves Nature Center just north of Crystal Lake Park. It’s a remnant of what was called the Big Grove, ten square miles of forest that stood in a sea of tallgrass prairie before the settlement of Champaign County by European Americans.

Busey Woods is notable for its mature oak and hickory trees, as well as the vernal pools that mark the former streambed of the Saline Branch, the stream which now runs through a straightened channel along the eastern edge of the woods. Had it not been for the efforts of local citizens, Busey woods would have been destroyed to make way for industrial development in the 1960s.

Given the scarcity of natural areas in east central Illinois, Busey Woods is an important home for wildlife, from smallmouth salamanders that breed in the pools, to red fox, deer, owls, and other forest birds. It is also an essential stopover and excellent spot for birdwatching during spring and fall migrations.

According to Derek Liebert, Natural Areas Coordinator for the Urbana Park District, the primary motive for the boardwalk was to provide increased access to the woods. Park District personnel anticipate that the boardwalk will make the woods accessible to several new groups of users, including people with physical restrictions, parents with children in strollers, and the like.

They also anticipate that the boardwalk, which is visible from the adjacent road, will prompt people who might have just driven by before to recognize the woods as a public natural area.

The boardwalk also compensates for the wet nature of the woods, especially the vernal pools. After a significant rainfall, particularly in the spring when the Nature Center conducts large numbers of school programs, these ponds breach their banks and flood large portions of the woods.

The boardwalk itself is constructed of non-arsenic treated white pine and features three pop-out overlook areas with benches. These pop-outs will be incorporated into the many environmental programs that are conducted in the woods. During one such program, for example, children use dip nets to sample the diverse aquatic communities of the north pond.

The park district is now working with Taylor Studios of Rantoul to design interpretive panels to be stationed along the boardwalk next spring. These panels will call attention to seasonal changes, provide history, explain management practices, and introduce ecological concepts.

The park district is also currently restoring, planting, and seeding the few areas that were adversely impacted during boardwalk construction. Volunteers interested in helping out with such restoration projects are encouraged to contact the Anita Purves Nature Center to sign up for one of the regularly scheduled workdays.