Thursday, August 29, 2013

A people powered move to the U of I campus, courtesy of Champaign County Bikes

A people powered move to the U of I campus, courtesy of Champaign County Bikes

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A few weeks back my daughter, Jane, who began school as a U of I student this week, was contemplating her move into Allen Hall on campus. I half-jokingly suggested going by bike, since that’s how she’s used to getting around town.

“Could you really do that?” she wondered. “Sure,” I said, not really sure at all. “Check in with somebody at Champaign County Bikes—they love that sort of thing.”

So the next morning when she came upon the table set up by the group at the Market at the Square in Urbana, she asked. As it turns out, they really did love the idea.

On the chance you’re not familiar with Champaign County Bikes (CCB), it’s a group that was founded in 2006 by people who wanted to improve the bicycle friendliness of Champaign County. They go about this by calling attention to the rights of cyclists as roadway users, promoting education about cycling, and supporting legislation and infrastructure improvements that benefit cycling.

On several past occasions, members of Champaign County Bikes have combined their pedaling power—and bicycle cargo trailers—to move people from one house or apartment to another. But moving Jane from our home in Champaign the three miles to Allen Hall would be their first time helping a student move into a University residence hall.

Rick Langlois, co-founder and current vice presid
ent put out the word to a small subset of the organization’s list, because he was certain we would easily assemble more moving capacity than a single first-year student would need, and he was right.

Helping out on the morning of the move we had six volunteers in addition to three family members and we towed a total of nine cargo trailers—probably two to three times what we really needed.

[Photo by Robert Baird. Jane talks with James Roedl, Campus Bike Shop manager as they wait to for others to get ready to roll.]

That was okay, though, since part of the point of this exercise was to demonstrate how much utility you can add to a bike by setting it up with a cargo trailer. For my daughter’s move we used a whole range of them, including a homemade trailer crafted from a jogging stroller, a super-utilitarian, painted-gray steel model, a few lighter, more nicely engineered one, and a super deluxe flat-bed trailer from the Campus Bike Shop.

More importantly, though, moving our daughter to campus by bike enabled us to turn what could have been an unpleasant chore into a delightful social event. The loading was easy. The three-mile morning ride from home to dorm was perfect. And when we arrived at our destination, a loud cheer went up as the student guides realized what we were up to.

Sarah Hoyle-Katz, a member of CCB’s leadership and a U of I graduate student who participated in the move, called attention to the independence that bicycling offers a young person. “Using bicycles for the move is a reminder to students that you don’t need a car to get around town.”

I didn’t think to ask my daughter for a final comment for this story—there was too much else to say (and not say) as we hugged her and made our exit so she could settle in. I’m glad we’ll be able to look back on her move and envision her pedaling into the future.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Local food coming home to roost

Local food coming home to roost

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On the chance you missed it, earlier this summer the Champaign City Council voted to revise the municipal code and allow residents to keep a certain number of hens at home. The change was motivated by a citizen effort led in part by Karen Carney, a long-time resident of the city who also happens to be my long-time spouse. I met with her over coffee recently to discuss the benefits of keeping hens, environmental and other.

She told me the idea first grabbed her as she listened to an installment of “In My Backyard,” [find it here] the WILL radio feature by Lisa Bralts of Urbana, a city that never enacted rules against keeping hens. She said, “Hearing people talk about the ways having chickens connected them to their neighbors made me think, ‘That would be a really cool thing to do.’”

She sees keeping a small flock of egg-laying hens as a natural next step in our family’s progress toward eating more locally produced foods. She acknowledges that there are options for 
buying eggs from nearby farms where humane and environmentally responsible practices are the norm, but likens the satisfaction of getting eggs from your own chickens to growing your own tomatoes.

[Photos by author. Carney holds a hen belonging to a friend for now, but anticipates having her own next year (above) and hens foraging in the friend's backyard (below.)]

Carney also called attention to a link noted by Bralts and others between chicken keeping and the way people relate to the system of food production as a whole. “You might call it a ‘gateway’ behavior,” she said. “Once you begin to participate directly in producing your own food, you become more aware of the environmental and ethical issues associated with the foods you buy, which can prompt you to make better choices.”

One of the chief benefits of keeping hens Carney cites is that it enables gardeners to “close the loop” of their food production. “Think about the radish tops in our garden,” she said. “We’ll be able to feed those to chickens, who will convert them into eggs, which we’ll eat, and manure, which we’ll use to fertilize the garden. What was ‘waste’ before will now stay in the system.” (She also shared another name some gardeners have for chicken poop, “black gold.”)

Carney also pointed out that backyard chicken keeping can play an important role in maintaining genetic diversity among chickens nationwide and around the world. That’s because hens used by large operations are bred for one trait only—productivity. When people select hens to keep at home, they’re often interested in other qualities as well, especially appearance and personality. So you wind up with a demand for heritage breeds that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The resistance to changing the city ordinance in Champaign—which turned out to be pretty minimal—was driven in part by concerns that keeping chickens would offend other people with unpleasant noise or smells. But research by staff in advance of the chicken study session this summer showed cities that allow residents to keep hens have not found them to be a significant source of tension among neighbors.

Indeed, Carney sees chicken keeping as a community building enterprise. She said, “Chickens foraging in a yard can be fascinating to watch, and people who keep them sometimes find that neighbors, especially kids, drop by just to see them out.” In addition, she cited the supportive groups that form naturally among people who keep hens.

If you’d like to connect with Champaign residents who are looking forward to keeping chickens you can reach Karen Carney at

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Turtle rescue yields surprise

Turtle rescue yields surprise  

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Why did the turtle cross the road? Good question.

But the one that headed north across University Avenue in Urbana during afternoon rush hour recently was fortunate that Sandy Mason noticed it when she did, then parked her car and ran back to grab it before it could be squished by a less observant driver.

Mason, an educator with U of I Extension who is known to many for her expertise in horticulture, is also an accomplished naturalist. Her first impulse was to carry the turtle across the road in the direction it was headed, which is standard practice for moving turtles found on roads.

But she hesitated since that would’ve just put the turtle in a parking lot—not really a good spot either. Beyond that, she was puzzled about its identity.

She knew from a glance it wasn’t a snapping turtle. And she was fairly sure it wasn’t any of the other turtles commonly seen in east central Illinois. Its top shell, or carapace, seemed too dome-like for a painted turtle or a slider. But it was a dull, dark green in color, and had none of the markings that characterize box turtles. Hmmmm.

Because work commitments would prevent her from following up over the next couple of days, Mason contemplated releasing the turtle at nearby Crystal Lake Park without resolving the question of its identity. But what if she really had found something unusual? So she called me to ask if I could help figure out what it was, and convey it to our mutual friend Chris Phillips if it turned about to be a rarity. Phillips is a herpetologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, a division of the U of I Prairie Research Institute, and curator of the amphibian and reptiles collections for the state and the university.

[Photos by author: common musk turtle, with its rescuer, above; spiny softshell turtle at Second Street Basin, below.]

A consultation with the “Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois” showed that the beneficiary of Mason’s efforts was a common musk turtle, a species that is, as the name implies, widely distributed. (Its range includes all of the eastern U.S.) But despite that, the “Field Guide” showed, no specimen of common musk turtle had ever been collected in Champaign County--so this one was noteworthy. It spent the night in a cardboard box in my garage, and Phillips picked it up the next morning. He photographed it, drew blood for future DNA analysis, and then let it go at Crystal Lake Park.

Chances are slim that anyone will ever again notice the common musk turtle that Sandy Mason rescued. It’s less than five inches long, and it will seldom leave the water.

But Crystal Lake Park and other water bodies do offer good opportunities to observe more common turtles as they bask at this time of year. On sunny days look for painted turtles and red-eared sliders on logs and rocks at the water’s edge.

My favorite spot for turtle watching locally is the Second Street Detention Basin in Champaign, where sliders of all sizes hang out. In addition, this summer they have been joined by a very large spiny softshell turtle. The softshell turtle is flatter and more circular than the sliders, and its limbs have a meatier look. In addition, it possesses an unmistakable snout, like a miniature version of an anteater’s.

Think about it. If you get to know these common turtles, you’ll be ready to recognize a rare one, whether it’s near the water or crossing the road.