Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reader questions invited

Reader questions invited

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One of the great pleasures of writing “Environmental Almanac” is the way it puts me in touch with people who share both an interest in the natural world and a concern for how human activity affects the rest of life on earth.

As I research segments, I have the opportunity to talk with scientists whose research is expanding human comprehension of everything from the soil beneath our feet to the atmosphere around us. I also talk with planners, policy-makers, engineers and others who are working to enable us to live well without imposing burdens on others around the world or in the future.

I also enjoy hearing from readers, whether they stop me to share a bird sighting, compare notes on bike routes, or speculate about the potential for wind and solar power to resolve the problems created by our current reliance on fossil fuel.

Over time, and with encouragement from others, I have wondered whether it would be possible to use “Environmental Almanac” to bridge the gap between readers and researchers by adding an occasional question-and-answer component to the column.

As I envision it, this might include using this weekly forum to investigate two or three questions on specific topics. For example, a while back when I ran a column on oak trees in Urbana that predate European settlement [click here to see it], a listener from Sidney emailed to ask how she might determine the age of mature oaks in her yard. I forwarded her question to University of Illinois Extension Forester Jay Hayek, who provided a reply that I found informative and entertaining, and one I thought other people might be interested to read as well.

Following is that exchange:

I was very interested in the article on ancient oaks as I have two very old Bur oak trees in my yard. I live in Sidney and my 2 story house has been in the family since 1909. In a family picture dated 1912, these two oak trees were already towering above the house. How do I safely determine the age of the trees?

Hayek's reply: There are three generally adopted methods to determine tree age: cut the tree down and count the annual rings; use an increment borer to extract a small core of wood and count the annual rings; or know approximately when the tree was established. Seeing that one rarely wants to cut down a healthy tree merely out of curiosity, an increment borer or historical data might be used to answer the question.

I'm not an advocate of using an increment borer on yard trees due to the small chance that infection may enter the wound made by the instrument; it’s not likely, but possible. Large prairie-borne bur oaks still alive and thriving in the prairie region of central Illinois have been estimated to be between 175-350 years old. My advice, use a best guess estimate of 150-275 years.

Of course it may be that readers are curious about broader topics, in which case a single question could also be the point of departure for a separate column.

So if you have a question about the natural world, or you would like to learn more about research on environmental questions taking place at the University of Illinois, send me an email at Otherwise, you could always just stop me the next time you see me birding or riding my bike.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

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Do you think you can name the largest native predator that currently lives and breeds in Illinois? I bet you can. It’s a member of the dog family, larger than a fox, but smaller than a wolf—that’s right, the coyote.

As you spot a coyote trotting away through a field of corn stubble you may feel like you’re looking at somebody’s dog heading home, and indeed coyotes are related to domestic dogs closely enough to interbreed with them. But unlike a dog, the coyote points its bushy tail to the ground as it runs. When it casts a wary look back to gauge your intentions, you see a wild predator that inhabited central Illinois long before cornfields came to dominate the landscape.

The lines of the coyote’s face and head further distinguish it from a domestic dog. They curve and taper into a long, narrow snout, which forms the bottom point of a triangle that’s completed by its tall, alert ears. [Photo courtesy of Illinois Natural History Survey.]The coyote’s fur—a mix of cream, yellow, tan, brown and gray, tipped with black—helps it remain unnoticed in the many varied habitats it occupies. And it occupies just about every habitat available in Illinois, from the streets of Chicago in the north to the Shawnee National Forest in the south. Standing at about two feet tall and weighing around 30 pounds, the coyote is just small enough to get away with living among humans.

The coyote’s success is also attributable to its flexible eating habits. Rabbits, mice, and other small mammals make up the bulk of the diet for coyotes in the Midwest. But coyotes are opportunistic. Depending on circumstances, they will eat road-killed deer or deer fawns, insects, reptiles and amphibians, grass, fruits and berries, rats, or unlucky house pets. One key to coexisting with coyotes is keeping small pets and pet food indoors overnight, when coyotes are most active.

A coyote on the move may cruise along at speeds of 20 to 30 miles an hour, which is why one that seems to be just trotting away from you is out of sight so fast. And for short bursts coyotes can hit 40 miles an hour or more. If need be they can also leap a distance of 14 feet, and they’re capable swimmers, as well.

Coyotes mate in late winter or early spring, so the weeks to come afford better-than-usual opportunities for seeing them out and about. Coyote pups are born in litters of four to nine sometime in April or May, and both mother and father care for them. The pups remain with their parents learning the skills they need to survive until late summer or fall, when they disperse to begin life on their own. The bonds between coyote pairs are strong, and they may mate together over many years.

As social animals, coyotes are great communicators, expressing themselves through the sorts of facial movements and body positions that are familiar to dog owners. They also keep track of one another by means of howls, yips, and barks—at least 11distinct vocalizations. The coyote’s latin name, Canis latrans, translates as “barking dog.”

For some people, the coyote’s howl will always be an emblem of nighttime in the desert west. But you need not travel far from an urban center to hear that howl as an Illinois sound, too.

Click to listen to IDNR's recording of a coyote howl.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Resolving to enjoy, conserve Illinois rivers in 2009

Resolving to enjoy, conserve Illinois rivers in 2009

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I have a short list of perennial New Year’s resolutions, which always begins with my determination to fish more than I did in the previous year. As you might imagine, this one doesn’t get me much immediate respect at home, but I think it immensely important for people to pursue the connectedness that outdoor recreation provides. I never feel more fully myself than when I’m hip-deep in flowing water with a fishing rod in my hand. Without such moments of connectedness, I think people are liable to forget that they are truly part of the natural world, and lose sight of the need to protect and restore it.

In order to maintain fishing opportunities for myself and for others, I also resolve yearly to work for the benefit of Illinois waterways. [Photo: A bucket and an aquarium net are all the equipment needed to enjoy the shallows of the Middle Fork River at Kickapoo State Park.] This effort begins at home, with the steps my family and I take to conserve water and reduce pollution. But it goes beyond that, too, since no amount of individual effort can bring about change on a scale as large as the watershed of the Mississippi River.

To catch up on prospects for stream conservation in 2009, I checked in recently with Glynnis Collins, who is executive director of Prairie Rivers Network, the Champaign-based, statewide affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, which aims “to protect Illinois’ rivers for people, fish, and wildlife.”

Collins explained with great enthusiasm that Prairie Rivers is currently working to articulate a comprehensive vision for healthy Illinois rivers over the long term, an answer to the question, “What do we want to see 30 years from now?” To do this the group will convene scientists who work on all aspects of river research and gather their input on the state of streams now, and the potential for their improvement in the years to come. Prairie Rivers will then work with policy experts to assign priorities and develop strategies for making those potential improvements real. Collins noted that the Illinois River was once the most productive fishery in the nation, and asserted that the road to reclaiming the many benefits our waterways can provide--for humans and wildlife--begins with envisioning them in a healthy state.

Collins noted that while that vision is in its early stages, in the end it will likely include some features that are already familiar to conservation-minded people: natural corridors to provide a buffer between streams and agriculture or other development, streams that are once again connected to their floodplains, and stream flows that are protected from over exploitation.

Indeed, Prairie Rivers already has a goal for 2009 of working to make sure that Illinois adopts a framework for dealing with conflicts among water users that accounts for the needs of aquatic life in addition to the accommodation of other uses.

This year Prairie Rivers Network will continue also to provide citizens with knowledge about various activities that have the potential to damage waterways so that they may take effective action, whether that’s monitoring streams near factory farms or keeping tabs on coal mines around the state.

Whether or not your New Year’s resolutions extend to fishing, I would encourage you to take time to enjoy the streams and rivers of Illinois in 2009. And if you’re inclined to work for their benefit of those waterways, either as an individual or part of a group, check in with Prairie Rivers Network at to see what you can do.