Wednesday, November 23, 2005

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 17, 2005

A Pitch for The Illinois Steward

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If you are curious about the natural world of Illinois, or maybe thinking about a gift for someone who fits that description, I’ve got a magazine recommendation for you: The Illinois Steward. The Steward is published quarterly, and it’s an education and outreach effort of the U of I and affiliates that promote natural resources stewardship.

The slogan of The Illinois Steward—“discovering our place in nature”—quietly asserts that people are part of the natural world. By extension, it implies that our well-being is bound up in the well-being of the land community that we inhabit, wherever we live.

Should you pick up a copy of The Illinois Steward the thing you are likely to notice first is the photography. In any given issue it seems there is at least one photograph that you’ll think can’t have been taken in Illinois. Sometimes that’s a picture of a thing you don’t usually associate with our state, like an ancient bald cypress tree. Other times it’s the perspective that makes the photo stand out, like a close-up of an insect you step over every day. Photographs of more easily recognized subjects in the Steward—prairiescapes, woodland wildflowers, birds and mammals—are equally striking, the kind I look at and wonder, “Could I frame that?”

Many of the stories The Illinois Steward covers focus on humans as participants in the natural world.

Features in the past year have included an article on the small but growing number of farmers around the state who are rediscovering the potential for growing crops other than corn and soybeans—to their own benefit, and the benefit of the land community. Another article described the mud-to-parks project, which is taking sediment from Illinois River backwaters near Peoria, and using it to reclaim former industrial sites near Chicago. Still other articles describe the pleasures of various outdoor activities from hunting for morel mushrooms to working to restore prairie and other natural areas.

In addition to articles that highlight human activity, The Illinois Steward also promotes understanding and appreciation for the nonhuman residents of Illinois—spiny soft-shelled turtles, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and the rest.

The look of The Illinois Steward is distinctive. It employs striking photos and drawings as components of the stories it tells, but it’s not so visually busy that the design becomes a distraction. The people who work on The Steward are passionate about their subjects, and passionate about communicating what they know and what they discover about Illinois.

If you have not picked up a copy of The Illinois Steward before, you should know that the current, Fall 2005, issue is something of a departure. It is produced entirely with essays, photos, and drawings by students from a U of I course on communicating nature, that was taught by members of the Steward staff and contributors last spring.

You can order The Illinois Steward by phone through their subscription office at (217) 333-3650. Or follow this link to learn more at their website:

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Illinois State Geological Survey Field Trip and Guide to Geology of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks

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What does a geologist do?

That’s the question that Mike Chrzastowski used to begin his first talk of the day on a field trip conducted by the Illinois State Geological Survey at Starved Rock and nearby Matthiessen State Parks this past October. Chrzastowski was one of a team of geologists leading the trip, which was designed to acquaint participants with the geology, landscape, mineral resources, and biodiversity of the area surrounding these two scenic and popular state parks.

In answer to the question of what geologists do, I and other field trip participants generally agreed they looked at rocks. Chrzastowski allowed for that, but he emphasized another aspect of their work. “Geologists,” he said, “tell stories.”

And stories were the order of the day. As we stood atop Starved Rock itself, a hundred twenty-five feet above the Illinois River, Chrzastowski told how torrents of meltwater from lakes formed by retreating glaciers—flows more powerful than today’s Mississippi River—had cut down through the surrounding plains to create the Illinois River Valley as we know it.

At another stop, we stood beneath Council Overhang, a fifty-foot high natural amphitheater in the side wall of Ottawa canyon with such perfect natural acoustics that our guides didn’t have to raise their voices to be heard. There we learned how the layers of sandstone and dolomite visible in the cliffs of the park formed hundreds of millions of years ago, as ancient seas repeatedly flooded the area and then receded.

We also learned how the three-sided box canyons opening out to the river valley had come to be, formed by small streams from the surrounding uplands cutting farther and farther back into the cliff face over time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the cliffs and other rock formations at Starved Rock are spectacular enough to look at without knowing anything more about them. But for me, the pleasure of learning how they came to be made the experience all the richer.

The Illinois State Geological Survey will host two more field trips on the geology of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks in spring of 2006. There is a twenty-five dollar fee for the trips, which are capped at a hundred participants, and advance registration is required. More information about State Geological Survey field trips and how to sign up for them is available at the Survey’s website

If you’ve got plans to visit the parks I’ve been talking about before spring, or field trips just don’t grab you, you might be glad to know that the Survey has also recently published a book about them. It’s called Time Talks: The Geology of Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Parks, and it’s available at the Starved Rock Visitors Center and through the Survey’s public information office in Champaign.

Time Talks is a concise, clearly written, beautifully designed guide intended to help park visitors read the landscape for themselves, and it tells many fascinating stories.

Of course, that’s one thing geologists do.

Illinois State Geological Survey

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Update, and Talk by Tim Gallagher

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Most of us will likely never lay eyes on an ivory-billed woodpecker, the magnificent bird that was presumed extinct for sixty years and then rediscovered in 2004.

Tim Gallagher has. He is the author of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and he’ll be in Champaign tomorrow to give a public talk.

Gallagher was one of the three highly credible witnesses who went into an Arkansas bayou in February 2004 looking for an ivory-bill and saw one. Their sighting led to fourteen months of highly secretive, intensive searching, which resulted in six more sightings and a few seconds of compelling video footage before the story was made public this past April. Since then, painstaking analysis of audio recordings made in the search area has provided even further proof that the ivory-bill lives.

Part of what makes the news about the ivory-bill so exciting is that it is such a cool bird. At approximately twenty inches long and with a wingspan of thirty-three inches, the ivory-bill is North America’s largest woodpecker, notably bigger than the pileated woodpecker, its widespread and relatively common cousin. The ivory-bill’s body has been described as coal black, and it sports extensive white patches on its wings, along with a lightening-bolt shaped white stripe on each side. The ivory-bill’s tall crest, with its slight forward curve is black on females, and blood red on males. Both male and female birds display a brilliant yellow eye and the three-inch-long, chisel shaped, ivory colored bill that gives this bird its name.

Prior to European settlement, ivory-bills inhabited the vast bottomland forests of the American south, from the Atlantic to Texas and Oklahoma, with the northern boundary of its range extending into southern Illinois and Indiana. As these ancient forests were destroyed over the past two hundred years, the ivory-bill declined, with sightings in the twentieth century concentrated in old growth remnants, especially in Florida and Louisiana.

The rediscovery of the ivory-bill in the place where it was found represents a victory for everyone interested in the preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat. The Arkansas bird was sighted in a national wildlife refuge in an area targeted for further conservation by the Nature Conservancy and the state because it represents a unique habitat, the southern bottomland forest, now nearly gone.

Writing for the New York Times this spring, James Gorman articulated well the role of conservation efforts in the ivory-bill’s astonishing comeback. He wrote, “It wasn’t a miracle. It wasn’t luck. And it wasn’t simply the resilience of nature, although that helped. The reason for the astonishing re-emergence of a mysterious bird is as mundane as can be. It is habitat preservation, achieved by hard, tedious work, like lobbying, legislating, and fundraising.”

Could the ongoing restoration of swamps and floodplain forests in southern Illinois bring the ivory-bill back to our state? It’s a long shot. But the ivory-bill’s re-emergence in Arkansas provides us a glimmer of hope, and a reason to redouble our own efforts to protect and restore wild places.

If you would like hear the latest on the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker from someone who has been at the center of it, come to the talk by Tim Gallagher tomorrow, Friday, November 4th. He’ll be speaking at 4:00 p.m. in Room D of the Law Building on the U of I campus in Champaign.