Thursday, January 31, 2013

Researcher conducts high-tech hunt for Chicago food gardens

Researcher conducts high-tech hunt for Chicago food gardens

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Although press coverage of urban agriculture sometimes seems to suggest that growing food in the city is a new phenomenon, it’s really a tradition with deep roots in Illinois, and one that’s especially strong in Chicago.

According to John R. Taylor, who is a doctoral candidate in the UI Department of Crop Sciences, Chicago led the nation in urban food production during World War II, with more than 1,500 community gardens and 250,000 home gardens contributing to the victory garden effort.

Over the past decade, city planners and various advocacy groups have sought to promote and support renewed interest in efforts to grow food there and in other large cities. Why? Because home food gardens produce all kinds of good. As Taylor points out, they reduce food spending and they sometimes provide income through the sale of excess production. They increase the consumption of fresh vegetables and improve the quality of diets by providing easy access to fresh, nutritious produce. And they encourage agricultural biodiversity, as well as the social goods of community building.

[Photos of home food gardens in Chicago by John R. Taylor.]

For planners, government officials, and advocates who want to target their efforts effectively, it is important to know where people are already growing food. But in Chicago, as in other major U.S. cities, only limited information about the extent and locations of urban food production has been available up to now. Most efforts to map it have included only community gardens—as opposed to private ones—and they have depended on active participation by people involved with the gardens.

In collaboration with his faculty advisor, Sarah Taylor Lovell, John Taylor employed a new approach to mapping Chicago’s food gardens and produced a far more comprehensive—and useful—document.

Working on a high resolution aerial image that was generated by Google Earth, Taylor scanned the land area of the entire city, one screen at a time, looking for visual indicators of food gardens—squares or rectangles of bare earth or mulch, plants in rows, etc. He estimated the size of smaller gardens using the ruler tool in Google Earth, and drew polygons around the larger ones, which were then exported to a geographic information system program. That program enabled him to calculate the number and area of the gardens and merge the data about them with sociodemographic data about the neighborhoods where they were located.

Taylor’s work also included on-the-ground visits to a sampling of the sites identified from the aerial image, which allowed him to gauge how accurate he had been in his analysis.

Overall, his effort showed that the community gardens identified on previous maps are not particularly significant sites of food production; only 13 percent of them had food producing components. (The rest were primarily ornamental plantings—streetscapes and the like.) The food production area of home gardens, including backyard gardens and gardens created by residents on nearby vacant land, was much more considerable—three times the amount of community gardens using a conservative estimate.

Precisely how this information may be useful in future efforts to promote urban agriculture remains to be worked out. But Taylor suggests approaches that emphasize scaling up home production of food based on existing resources could succeed where top-down approaches lacking local leadership have not.  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

University of Illinois researchers study fate of snakes in a warming climate

University of Illinois researchers study fate of snakes in a warming climate

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I’m fonder of snakes than most people are. My family and I enjoy finding garter snakes in our yard, and I consider it an added bonus to see water snakes in a river when I’m fishing. My daughter even keeps a cornsnake for a pet. Attached as I am to snakes, however, I had never wondered much about how climate change will affect them. University of Illinois researcher Patrick Weatherhead has, though.

In a collaboration that included three graduate students over the course of about ten years, he assessed the likely consequences of a warming environment on ratsnakes. Ratsnakes are beautiful, nonvenomous creatures that can grow to six feet long and feed primarily on small rodents, although they also feed on birds and bird eggs when the opportunity presents itself.

Fortunately for purposes of the study, the researchers did not need to figure out how to create a warmer environment for their subjects in order to test their hypotheses. Instead, they took advantage of the fact that ratsnakes occupy a broad geographic range, and used latitude as a surrogate for climate change. That is, they compared the ability of ratsnakes to regulate their body temperature through behavior in three populations representing the north-to-south extent of their range: Ontario, Illinois and Texas. What they found was that ratsnakes in all three places will derive some benefit from a warmer climate.

Say, for example, future daytime temperatures in Illinois warm beyond the range that ratsnakes prefer for activity.

What would they do?

For an answer, Weatherhead and colleagues looked to the behavior of ratsnakes in Texas, where the climate of the present is approximately the same as the climate projected for Illinois within 50 years or so.

[Photo: Jinelle Sperry, who collaborated on the project, with Texas ratsnake at Fort Hood, Texas.]

When daytime temperatures in Texas get too hot for foraging, the researchers found, ratsnakes there wait until the cool of the night to go looking for food. Weatherhead expects that ratsnakes in Illinois will follow suit, although the ones in his study were still active strictly during the day. (He notes that there is already other anecdotal evidence of snakes raiding bird’s nests at night in Illinois.)

Increased nocturnal foraging may even provide a benefit to ratsnakes. At night they are more likely to catch adult birds on the nest and so eat them along with their eggs. In addition, ratsnakes hunting at night might be less vulnerable to the animals that prey on them when they’re active by day.

While the capacity to shift from hunting during the day to hunting at night may enable ratsnakes in Illinois to cope with global warming, Weatherhead emphasizes that it’s not likely to result in a plague of them. “They are not,” in his phrase, “a universally well-loved group of animals.” Their populations will still have to contend with diminishing habitat, high road mortality and the fact that people sometimes still kill them on purpose.

And what’s good for ratsnakes might be bad for other animals, especially the ones they eat and the ones that eat them. In Texas, for example, ratsnake predation is already a problem for two species of endangered birds. “Things don’t live in isolation,” Weatherhead emphasizes. “It’s crucial that we understand how the components of various ecosystems might be affected if we’re going to work effectively to protect them in the face of global warming.”

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bobcats in the Prairie State [from the archive]

Bobcats in the Prairie State [from the archive]

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Early one recent morning Urbana resident Roger Digges was out for his regular sunrise walk at Meadowbrook Park. He was listening for the first migrating birds of the Spring and following the tracks a pair of coyotes had left in the slushy snow next to the path. Then he saw something unusual, an animal he thinks was a bobcat.

He described the animal this way:
It seemed relatively short in length for the size of its body, and it had a stubby tail, which stuck up. Its fur was patterned, although the light was too dim to see the pattern clearly. It had a large head with a wide face that seemed “squashed,” and prominent tufted ears. When it paused to look at me I could see a hint of yellow in its eyes. I could have been fooled by the low light, but it certainly moved in a feline rather than canine fashion, and it was much larger than any domestic cat.

As a long-time birder, Roger Digges is accustomed to the questions that arise when someone reports an improbable observation, but the features he describes characterize a bobcat very well. [Photo by Michael Jeffords. A captive bobcat at Wildlife Prairie State Park rests on a branch during the day. Bobcats are most active at night, when people are least likely to see them.]

You might be surprised to learn that bobcats are not really a rarity in Illinois anymore, at least not where suitable habitat exists.

Bobcats inhabited the entire state prior to 1820, but their populations declined dramatically over the course of the following century as a result of habitat loss and unregulated hunting and trapping. They were added to the state list of threatened species in 1977. Scientific studies conducted during the 1990s, however, found that bobcats had become widely distributed in suitable habitat and that their numbers were continuing to grow, and they were removed from the state list of threatened species in 1999.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, there have been reliable reports of bobcats in 99 of the 102 counties statewide in the past two decades. By far the greatest numbers of Illinois bobcats are found in the southern third of the state, where the greatest amount of wooded habitat exists, especially in the Shawnee National Forest. Population estimates based on available territory suggest that perhaps 2,200 bobcats may now be living in Illinois south of Interstate 64. Consistent reports of bobcats in Jo Daviess County indicate the presence of another population in the northwestern corner of the state. Bobcats also occur at lower densities in the wooded corridors along the Mississippi, Illinois, and Kaskaskia rivers.

Like other animals that coexist successfully with humans, bobcats are adaptable creatures. They feed on a variety of small prey and use whatever suitable structures are available for dens, anything from fallen trees and hollow logs to rock piles, caves and abandoned buildings. In addition, bobcats are most active when we are least likely to see them—at dawn and dusk, and during the night. Because they are small and inclined to avoid us, bobcats normally represent no threat to people.

Unfortunately for anyone who might hope to see bobcats in Champaign-Urbana, they are probably not adaptable enough to take up residence here, where so little forest exists. But it is exciting to think that Roger Digges might have seen one passing through here, all the same.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Appreciating Illinois Coyotes [from the archive]

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. [Photos by author.]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 03, 2013

2012 Audubon Christmas Bird Count, a Champaign County perspective

2012 Audubon Christmas Bird Count, a Champaign County perspective

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There’s no part of the holidays I look forward to more than participating in Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, which are now conducted in more than 2000 locations in the western hemisphere, including more than 60 in Illinois. The Champaign County edition took place back on December 15, and for that I teamed up with two friends to cover the U of I South Farms and surrounding areas.

For us, and for most participants, a Christmas Bird Count is an all day affair, one that begins with listening for owls before sunrise and ends after sunset. That being the case, I’ll just stick to the highlights here, and spare you details of how the wind and rain interfered with finding birds that day.

Our most interesting bird of the morning was a barred owl that’s been roosting in the U of I Forestry Plantation on South Race Street, across from Meadowbrook Park. Unfortunately for the owl, a large mob of crows found it at about the same time we did. Many of them perched in nearby branches and tormented it with their raucous calls. Others flew in menacing circles, swooping in closer now and again for effect. The owl sat tight—miserable, but determined to wait out the onslaught. By day, crows have the advantage over barred owls and good reason to attack, because under cover of darkness barred owls kill and eat them.

[Photos by author: a barred owl (from another day) and white-crowned sparrow, taken on count.]

At lunch we headed to the center of campus, where we could grab a sandwich and check for the peregrine falcon that hangs out on the tall buildings near Fourth Street. Sure enough, we spotted him perched on a ledge near the top of Sherman Hall as we parked.

After lunch it was back to the South Farms, where development has destroyed a great deal of bird habitat over the past year. In one of the weedy fields that remains we located a flock of white-crowned sparrows around a brush pile. On their wings and bodies, white-crowns differ little from house sparrows, the European bird most North Americans think of as the generic “sparrow.” But white-crowns’ heads are marked with crisp, vibrant stripes of black and white, reminiscent of the jerseys worn by NFL referees.

The white-crowns that occupy the Midwest in winter come down from breeding territories in far northern Canada and Alaska. For some reason the habitat on the South Farms has really appealed to them, and the Champaign County Christmas Bird Count circle has sometimes tallied more than any other in the state.

Late in the day my group always makes time to check for birds on the golf course at Stone Creek in Urbana, where the combination of water and wide-open spaces produces surprises sometime. This year we found there small flocks of unexpected ducks, American wigeons and northern shovelers, which were hanging out with the usual mallards and Canada geese.

We typically end the day at the Barnhart Prairie Restoration on Old Church Road south of Urbana. It’s a good spot for northern harriers, long-winged raptors that patrol low over the fields by day searching for rodents. At night, short-eared owls, which resemble harriers in appearance and habits, take over and do the same. By watching appropriate habitat at dusk, birders can sometimes catch harriers and short-eared owls on the wing at the same time.

As it turned out, our most exciting bird of the count was perched atop a telephone pole right where we pulled off the road to park.