Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday gifts to help people connect with the natural world

Holiday gifts to help people connect with the natural world

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With all of the hype devoted to electronic entertainment, it can be difficult to remember that holiday gift giving need not involve batteries, or even a trip to the mall. Here are some suggestions for how to avoid those things and get gifts that can help people you care about connect with the natural world.

Start with field guides from the Illinois Natural History Survey, which you can order by phone (217-244-2161) or purchase at Survey headquarters, 1816 South Oak Street in Champaign. The field guides published by the Natural History Survey are similar to the national guides you may be more familiar with, but they’re written and photographed by scientists from Illinois, and they contain more detailed information about ranges and habitats in our state.

For people who appreciate the beauties of butterflies and moths, there are three guides to help distinguish among the many colorful species of these insects that inhabit our state for at least part of the year.

If you’re shopping for someone who’s interested in more down-to-earth critters, you can’t go wrong with the Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois. Like other guides, this book helps to answer that most important question in the field, “what is it?” But it’s also an eye-opener. People who browse the photographs of some of the fascinating snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, and salamanders that can be found right here in Illinois might also be inclined to go looking for them.

Are there people on your list who enjoy kayaking or canoeing? Help them learn the difference between a rabbitsfoot and a pistolgrip with the Field Guide to Freshwater Mussels of the Midwest.

If you’d prefer to give a gift to be enjoyed inside, consider a year’s subscription to the Illinois Steward magazine, which is published by University of Illinois Extension (by phone, 217-333-5900). The Steward introduces readers to wildlife, natural areas, and important issues in conservation with captivating photographs and in-depth articles. It’s a quarterly reminder of the many natural treasures that are ours to enjoy and protect. The publishers of the Illinois Steward also produce a set of note cards featuring scenes from around the state that makes an excellent gift.

Another subscription possibility is, Outdoor Illinois, a monthly magazine published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (217-782-7454). As a DNR publication, Outdoor Illinois may hold special appeal for the hunters and anglers on you list.

If you’re buying for birders, stop by the Audubon gift shop at the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center. There you can pick up Birds of Illinois (Lone Pine Publishing) a field guide with state-specific range maps and more detailed accounts of life history and conservation topics than you’ll find in bird guides with a wider focus. If you want a gift for someone who would like to bird more, but doesn’t know where to go, give them the book Birding Illinois (Falcon), which describes how to get around and what you can expect to see at more than 110 locations throughout the state.

With a little luck, you’ll be finished shopping early, and have some time to get out for yourself.

On the web

Illinois Natural History Survey Manuals

Illinois Steward Subscription

Outdoor Illinois Subscription

Information for Audubon Nature Shop at Anita Purves Nature Center:

Monday, December 10, 2007

University district lighting project can protect environmental values

University district lighting project can protect environmental values

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The cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois have recently embarked on a cooperative project to update the outdoor lighting in the university district over the next 10 years.

Done well, such a large-scale project affords some excellent opportunities for protecting environmental values. Better still, taking advantage of these opportunities need not increase the overall cost of providing lighting, or detract from safety and security. That’s because the qualities that make outdoor lighting good for people also make it good for the environment.

I think most of us are so accustomed to the effects of poorly designed outdoor lighting, which are sometimes referred to collectively as “light pollution,” that we hardly even recognize them. But recognizing what’s wrong with much of our current outdoor lighting is important as we look toward the future. And don’t take my word for it. The next time you’re out at night, I bet you can spot all of these problems.

First, look for fixtures that direct bright light at or near a horizontal angle. Examples of such fixtures include the boxy-looking wall packs that are sometimes affixed to buildings and the old-style, drop lens cobra head fixtures that loom over many arterial streets. (Newer, flat lens cobra head fixtures direct light toward the ground.) Notice that as you walk or drive toward such fixtures it actually becomes more difficult to see obstacles and other dangers in front of you or off to your side. Notice also how bright light that shines horizontally creates harsh shadows and that it intrudes on neighboring properties.

Next, pay attention to fixtures that direct some part of their light up into space, like the historic-style globes around town, and the super-bright, so-called “security” lights on power company poles. The most direct bad effect of such fixtures is sky glow, the light that denies modern urban dwellers one of the most basic human experiences, the opportunity to look up at the stars and wonder.

Beyond producing undesirable visual effects, bad lighting also wastes a lot of energy. One study conducted in the mid 1990s calculated the cost of wasted outdoor light in the U.S. to be about a billion dollars a year, and there’s no reason to suppose that figure has gone down. The energy used to produce that wasted light would equal at least six million tons of coal or 23 million barrels of oil.

So what would a good campus lighting project look like?

Gary Cziko, a University of Illinois professor and Urbana resident has proposed what seem to me five very useful criteria for evaluating the options, all beginning with ‘E’:

• Efficient—fixtures should produce the greatest amount of useful light per watt of electricity used.
• Effective—fixtures should direct light downward (as depicted in photo, by Gary Cziko), and the light they produce should be of a color that enhances vision.
• Economical—the costs of operating and maintaining fixtures should considered in conjunction with the costs of purchasing and installing them.
• Ecological—lighting should be limited to areas where it is truly useful so that plants and wildlife are not disturbed unnecessarily, and attention should be given to disposal issues since some lights contain mercury.
• Esthetic—fixtures should be pleasing to look at both during the day when they are off and at night when they are on.

With the right design, the University District uniform lighting project can create an attractive space for people without creating undue stress on the environment.

You can see Gary Cziko's presentation on U of I campus lighting at:

Much more information about the why and how of good lighting can be found at the website of the International Dark Sky Association:

Monday, December 03, 2007

Weather watchers wanted in east central Illinois

Weather watchers wanted in east central Illinois

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One of the best lines I know about weather is the quote attributed to Mark Twain that says, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody seems to do anything about it.” I mention that here, however, in order to introduce an effort by weather researchers who are working to make it untrue. Sort of.

With support from the National Science Foundation and a long list of other sponsors, these researchers are developing a nationwide network of backyard weather observers who will work together to measure and map precipitation in their communities.

The official name of the project is the “Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow” (CoCoRaHS) network. CoCoRaHS began in Colorado in 1998, prompted by a strange storm that dumped more than a foot of rain in some parts of Fort Collins, while other parts of the city experienced much more moderate rainfall. The flash flood that resulted from this storm killed 5 people and caused more than $200 million in damage. Somewhere down the line it is hoped that the greater understanding of storms enabled by the CoCoRaHS network will help forecasters foresee the potential for such disasters.

The CoCoRaHS network is growing rapidly at this point; currently there are more than 7,000 observers participating in 26 states.[Right: CoCoRaHS observers measure and report precipitation daily. Photo by Steve Hilberg.]

In our area CoCoRaHS is being coordinated by the Illinois State Water Survey and the National Weather Service, in cooperation with University of Illinois Extension. Researchers at the Illinois State Water Survey have already used data generated by the network to more accurately describe rainfall patterns from storms in Illinois.

CoCoRaHS observers participate in an initial training session where they learn how to install their rain gauges and take readings using standard procedures. After initial training, observers commit to spending a few minutes each day measuring precipitation in their own back yards and reporting their findings to the network via the World Wide Web.

The CoCoRaHS network welcomes observers of all ages, and provides a great opportunity for families to work together. It’s ideal for learning some basics about science, such as how to collect data using standard instruments and procedures. But it’s also cool in the hands-on approach it requires; observers go outside every day to read their gauges, which are more accurate than the remote sensors that are so widely available.

People interested in joining the CoCoRaHS network are invited to attend an information and training workshop to be held on Wednesday, December 12th at 7:00 p.m. in the Champaign County Extension auditorium. There is no charge to attend the training session, but pre-registration is required. Call U of I Extension at 217-333-7672 or go to University of Illinois Extension, Champaign County, [] on the web and click the “Rain Spotters” link (near the top right on the page).

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Peregrine falcon hanging out near U of I campus

Peregrine falcon hanging out near U of I campus

[There's no audio version of this spot because it didn't run on the radio.]

If you think of wildlife as something that exists “out there,” away from buildings and streets and the bustle of human activity, I’d like to call your attention to a bird that might prompt you to reconsider.

It’s a peregrine falcon--for my money, one of the coolest birds in the world. This is the bird that reaches speeds of up to 200 miles an hour in its spectacular hunting dives.

And let me clarify here, I don’t just want to introduce you to peregrines by telling you some interesting things about them as a species, although I will do that. I want to introduce you to an individual bird that has been hanging out in Champaign, and that many readers should be able to see without going far out of their way.

The peregrine in question was first observed earlier this month by a birder who works in the Tower at 3rd, the tall building at the corner of Third and John Street, just off the U of I campus. [The photo, right, was taken from inside the Tower at 3rd by Jackie Roy, who first spotted this peregrine.] It has been seen regularly on and around the tower since then, most often perched on the window-unit air conditioners that stick out from the upper floors on the southeast side of the building.

If you want to look for the peregrine yourself, your best bet is to scan the Tower at 3rd from a block or two away, say the corner of Fourth and Daniel, or somewhere in the 400 block of East John Street. (And please, if you’re driving or bicycling, park first, then look.) The bird you’re looking for is about 16 inches long from bill to tail tip, and the window units it prefers are on the 19th story. When it is up there, you can tell from some distance. To make out any detail, however, you will need to use binoculars.

In good light you should be able to see the dark, helmet-like markings on its head, and the wide lines that extend down over its cheeks like exaggerated sideburns. If you get a look at the peregrine’s front you will see that it is very heavily marked compared to the hawks more commonly seen in our area.

As you may or may not remember, peregrines were extirpated from most of their range in the United States by use of the pesticide DDT before it was banned in 1972. They were protected under the Endangered Species Act until 1999, when, thanks to extensive breeding and reintroduction programs, their numbers had recovered to sustainable levels.

I would emphasize that the peregrine’s robust recovery depended on its tolerance for life among people, a trait not shared by many other endangered birds. Prior to urbanization, most North American peregrines nested on cliffs. But they now also thrive in habitat created by humans, nesting on the ledges of tall buildings and bridges, even in densely populated cities.

Since the peregrine I have written about here is a wild animal, there’s no guarantee that it will be around should you go looking for it. (And now that I have written about it, I’m a little anxious it will never be seen again.) But if you are even casually interested in birds, a seeing a peregrine falcon is a treat you don’t want to miss.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Urbana's plans to encourage bicycling

Urbana’s plans to encourage bicycling

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There are some people who just don’t bicycle, either because they are unable or unwilling to. For them, modifications to roads or changes in the behavior of drivers are immaterial.

There are other people who are so enthusiastic about bicycling that they’re now preparing for winter by making sure the studded snow tires for their bikes are ready to go. They will continue to bike with or without better accommodations for bicyclists on city streets.

Then there’s a third group of people. These are folks who would like to bicycle sometimes--either to work, or to run errands, or for recreation--but who don’t because they don’t feel secure navigating in traffic with cars.

It is with this third group in mind that Urbana’s City Council commissioned the development of a bicycle master plan this year. Working with suggestions generated at a large public meeting back in May, as well as an analysis of existing plans for bicycle facilities, the City’s consultant, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, has recently completed a draft of the Bicycle Master Plan.

When the plan is fully implemented the casual adult cyclist should be able to travel from High Cross Road on the eastern fringe of town to Goodwin Avenue at the heart of the U of I campus by means of an easily accessed, continuous system.

Plan developers note that for the most part neighborhood streets in Urbana already allow bicyclists and other vehicle traffic to share the road comfortably, but that such streets are often not useful for travel between important destinations. They emphasize that the bicycle plan is more about facilitating travel by means of routes that have few stop signs, and that cross major arteries at traffic lights.

On streets where space allows but cars seldom park, the draft plan calls for a single white stripe that would separate a shared parking and bike lane on the right from travel lanes in the center. On streets with higher volumes of car traffic and more parking, a separate, 5-foot wide bike lane would provide bicyclists with a dedicated road space. (You can already see an example of such bike lanes on Illinois Street between Lincoln Avenue and Goodwin.)

On busier roads with higher speed limits and few crossings, such as Windsor and High Cross roads, the proposed bicycle plan calls for side paths separate from, but parallel to the main road, along with safety improvements at major intersections. The bicycle network would also incorporate existing trails, such as those at Meadowbrook Park, as well as rails-to-trails efforts in the future.

If you are interested in bicycling in Urbana you are encouraged to review the draft bicycle plan, which is available on the web through the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, and provide feedback on it.

A public meeting to discuss proposed revisions is scheduled for Thursday, December 6th from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Urbana Middle School.

I should add that planning for improved bicycling facilities is also underway on the U of I campus and in the City of Champaign. I’ll report back on those plans as they develop.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Honey bees and other pollinators in trouble

Honey bees and other pollinators in trouble

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When entomologists want to dramatize the critical role that bees and other pollinators play in our lives, they sometimes turn to descriptions that could provide the opening for an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Picture if you will a world without bees. It is a world without apples, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, kiwis, melons, or squash--a world without scores of other fruit, vegetable and nut crops. It is a world where important forage crops like alfalfa don’t grow. Worst of all, for some, it is a world without chocolate or coffee.

The thing is, this nightmare scenario really isn’t so far fetched.

You may already know that times have been tough for honey bees since the 1980s. That’s when a parasitic mite that devastates honey bee colonies was accidentally introduced to the U.S.

You may also know that this past year has marked a dramatic turn for the worse. Beginning last winter, a phenomenon that came to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD, has led to steep losses of managed bees in more than 20 states. About one fourth of all beekeepers in the U.S. have been affected and, on average, affected operations have lost a staggering 45% of their bees.

Researchers have recently isolated a virus they think may lead to CCD by sorting through the genetic material of bees from afflicted colonies and comparing it to that of bees from healthy colonies. It may interest you to know that this genetic detective work was made possible by the sequencing of the honey bee genome, a huge accomplishment which was completed just last year and spearheaded by University of Illinois professor Gene Robinson.

Identifying the virus at the root of CCD does not mean a treatment for the disorder is around the corner, and continued losses of honey bees seem likely.

The large-scale loss of managed honey bees is cause enough for alarm on its own. Unfortunately, scientists believe the decline of managed honey bees is being matched by a decline in wild pollinators around the world. Chief among these are wild honey bees and bumble bees. But other wild pollinators in decline include many insects, such as butterflies and moths, as well as some hummingbirds, bats, and other animals.

A 2006 report on the status of pollinators in the U.S. issued by the National Academy of Sciences [report in brief] and headed by University of Illinois professor May Berenbaum emphasized that good information about populations of wild pollinators simply doesn’t exist, so it is difficult to even track declines.

Politicians may be waking up to this issue, as evidenced by the establishment of “National Pollinator Week” back in June. Ordinary citizens have a role to play as well. First, we can modify our gardening practices to eliminate any unnecessary use of pesticides, and favor the use of native wildflowers in our landscaping. Second, people who wish to be even more involved can join the Bee Spotter network just established at the U of I. The Bee Spotter network is designed to engage citizens in the scientific effort to establish baseline information about the numbers of bumble bees and wild honey bees that are out there.

Since most bees in central Illinois won’t be active again for some months, let me encourage you just to check out the Bee Spotter web site at Then as the weather warms up and bees become active next spring I’ll revisit this issue with more detail on what we all can do to help keep bees buzzing.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bat Time of Year

Bat Time of Year

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As Halloween approaches I like to make time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house, my children, Jane and Will, have joined me today to celebrate bats.

I suspect most young people of the present have grown up without being exposed to the kinds of myths about bats that previous generations grew up on. After all, these are kids who have read books with positive bat characters like Stellaluna and Silverwing.

But it can still be fun to bring up old myths, if only to contradict them.

Rob: Guys, are bats blind?

Jane and Will: Nooo.

Rob: Do bats like to get tangled in people’s hair?

Jane and Will: Oh, Please.

Rob: Are bats flying mice?

Jane and Will: Daaad.

Okay, okay. Scientists classify bats in their very own order, chiroptera. Worldwide there are around 1,000 species of bats, and they constitute a quarter of all mammal species alive today.

What’s so cool about bats?

Will: Bats are the only mammals that can truly fly. Other mammals, like so-called flying squirrels, can jump from a perch and glide. But bats can propel themselves through the air, and stay up for a long time. The wings of bats are made of very thin skin stretched over very long fingers. [Photo of little brown bat courtesy the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Jane: Another thing that’s really cool about bats is how they use echolocation to find prey and avoid obstacles as they fly. This built-in sonar allows them to detect insects the size of gnats and objects as fine as human hair.

Will, I know you’re interested in those vicious vampire bats, the ones that suck people’s blood. What can you tell us about them?

Will: Well, vampire bats do drink blood and they can only go a couple of days without eating. But they try to feed on humans only as a last resort. Vampires, which live in Central and South America, prefer to feed on cattle or other wild animals.

Jane: Aside from vampire bats, there are bats that eat lizards, bats that eat birds, and bats that eat other bats. Even more bats feed on fruits and their juices. But 70% of all bats, including all of the species from North America, are insectivores.

Will: And bats can eat a lot of bugs. A male little brown bat eats about half of his body weight in mosquitoes and other insects per night.

Jane: And a female little brown bat that is nursing a pup eats more than her own weight nightly. By eating so many bugs bats perform an important service for people.

Dad: So, since you guys like bats so much, if you found one would you pick it up?

Will: No way--bats are wild animals, and we know they can bite.

Jane: Besides, although very few people in the U.S. get rabies anymore, those who do usually get it from the bite of an infected bat.

Dad: It’s best to consult with the state department of public health or a local animal control agency if you’re faced with the task of getting a bat out your house.

Will: In reality, bats have more to fear from people than people have to fear from bats.

Rob: About half of all bat species worldwide are threatened or endangered, including 4 of the 12 species that occur in Illinois.

Jane: To learn more about bats and what you can do to help protect them, check out the links at the Environmental Almanac website.

Homepage of Bat Conservation International

Articles from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports online:

Indiana Bats in Illinois

Species Spotlight: Little Brown Bat

Thursday, October 18, 2007

As Clean Water Act turns 35, Congress can reaffirm original intent

As Clean Water Act turns 35, Congress can reaffirm original intent

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Today the Clean Water Act, often heralded as one of the most effective sets of environmental laws ever enacted, turns 35. I’d like to report that in the 35 years since passage of the Act, all of the waters of the United States have become fishable and swimmable. I say I’d like to report that, but I can’t.

Today more than 45% of rivers and lakes in the U.S. remain too polluted for people to safely fish in them, swim in them or take their drinking water from them.

I suspect many people are actually comfortable with this state of affairs because they can remember when things were even worse. Point source pollution—ugly stuff running out of pipes—has been greatly reduced, thanks to the permitting system instituted by the Clean Water Act. And we haven’t witnessed anything as dramatic as the Cuyahoga River burning in recent years.

But the Clean Water Act doesn’t prompt us to ask whether we can see pollution flowing out of pipes, or whether our waters are so degraded they’ll catch fire. It prompts us to ask, “Can I fish there?” and “Can I swim there?”

Further progress toward the ultimate goals of the Clean Water Act is possible, but it won’t be easy.

In part, that’s because progress toward cleaner water will require that we come together to reduce nonpoint source pollution. That includes the nutrients and pesticides that run off of farm fields, lawns and golf courses, as well as the oil, antifreeze, and other contaminants picked up by rainwater as it flows over pavement.

Progress toward cleaner water has also been hampered in Washington in recent years. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent administrative activities by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have served to exclude certain wetlands and smaller, sometimes intermittent, streams from the protections afforded by the Clean Water Act.

If you measure the streams of Illinois in miles, more than half of them are small enough to now be at risk of losing Clean Water Act protections. Also vulnerable are some 150,000 acres of Illinois wetlands, which could now be considered “isolated” and thereby outside of Clean Water Act safeguards.

I don’t claim expertise in the legal arguments at play here, but I do understand that big rivers result from lots of smaller streams coming together, and that you can’t expect to have clean water in the Mississippi unless you also have clean water in the Illinois, and the Wabash, and the Ohio, and the thousands of smaller waterways from which these rivers arise.

Thirty-five years after passage of the original Clean Water Act, Congress has returned to this crucial issue. A bill introduced this summer called the “Clean Water Restoration Act” (HR 2421) would, according to supporters, reaffirm the original intent of the 1972 law, which was to protect all “waters of the United States.” Their hope, which I share, is that the Clean Water Restoration Act will make it possible to move forward again to turn the promise of clean water into a reality.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrating the Urbana Park District’s Natural Areas

Celebrating the Urbana Park District’s Natural Areas

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As the Urbana Park District celebrates its 100th anniversary this week I’d like to recognize its ongoing efforts to protect and restore natural areas. While each of the sites I talk about here is a story in it own right, taken together they give evidence of the Urbana Park District’s recognition that good habitat for plants and wildlife is also good habitat for people.

Let’s start at Busey Woods, the 59-acre tract connected to the Anita Purves Nature Center on North Broadway. Saved from development as an industrial park in the 1960s, this remnant of the Big Grove (the10-square mile forest that once encompassed much of present day Urbana) was formally acquired by the park district in 1992. The mix of mature oak and hickory trees that makes up Busey Woods provides a home for nesting birds in the summer, and an important stopover for migrants in the spring and fall. Busey Woods is also the only nearby place where residents of Champaign-Urbana can witness the awakening of life in vernal pools in early spring, and enjoy the show put on by woodland wildflowers.

In recent years the park district has made great strides in promoting a robust and diverse understory of native plants in Busey Woods by removing the invasive species that had begun to crowd them out.

People are accommodated at Busey Woods by a system of well-maintained trails, as well as a boardwalk that makes the woods accessible to those with physical restrictions. The boardwalk features overlook areas with benches, and signs that help visitors understand and appreciate what they see there.

A visit to Meadowbrook Park, just three miles south of Busey Woods, provides area residents and others with the opportunity to experience an 80-acre restoration of the tallgrass prairie that dominated the local landscape prior to European settlement. Prairie restoration efforts at Meadowbrook date back to the late 1970s, and have benefited greatly from the help of the Champaign County Audubon Society. In recent years the park district has added a 15-acre savanna restoration to the prairie at Meadowbrook Park. Named the Walker Grove in honor of park board president Michael Walker’s parents, this area is meant to recreate the transitional zone that existed where tallgrass prairie and woodlands met.

Toward the eastern edge of town, the Urbana Park District is integrating natural areas with the development of athletic fields at one of its newest sites, Weaver Park. The natural areas at Weaver Park include a 10-acre remnant of the Big Grove with trees that date back 200 years or more, as well as a brand new watershed management project. This project uses native plants in a naturalized basin to create wildlife habitat and at the same time alleviate flooding on the site and in the surrounding neighborhood.

An even more ambitious wetland project is taking shape at an 86-acre site not yet open to the public, adjacent to the district’s dog park on Perkins Road. The best way to experience what, for now, is called the Perkins Road site before it’s officially open is to participate in one of the regularly scheduled workdays there.

Would we be able to get by without access to woodlands, or prairies, or wetlands? I suppose so. But our community is far richer for the opportunities we have to experience natural areas thanks to the Urbana Park District.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois

October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois

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Although this week’s daytime high temperatures in the 80s make it tempting to think otherwise, the month of October promises dramatic changes for the natural world in central Illinois.

In urban areas, the acorns and walnuts that have already fallen add new challenges walking and cycling. Grey squirrels are in a constant frenzy, trying to figure out how to store the surplus of food available to them now. If you find walnuts stuck in your flower pots or wedged into odd places around your house or even on your car, blame the squirrels.

For now, chimney swifts still enliven the skies throughout the day, chipping to one another as they swoop and glide in pursuit of insects. But somewhere around the middle of the month they’ll head for South America, not to be seen here again until mid-April.

Over in Indiana migrating sandhill cranes have begun to arrive at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. As of now there are some 400 hundred of these magnificent birds at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next six weeks until they peak at more than 10,000 in mid-November.

The cranes will move on to spend the winter in Georgia and Florida, but the smaller, cold-hardy birds that come down from the north to stay in Illinois for the winter will also arrive in October. If you keep an eye out you’re likely to see the season’s first dark-eyed juncos at your feeder before the month is over.

Insect life, which is so abundant now, will also be scarce in a few short weeks. Migratory species, including monarch butterflies and assorted dragonflies, will have moved on by the time November arrives. Adults of other species will die off with the coming of frost, to be survived by eggs or larvae capable of withstanding the winter.

Frogs and toads will continue to fatten up on insects while they can, but over the course of the month they’ll be moving toward the edges of lakes and ponds. After a cold snap or two, they’ll burrow into the mud for protection from freezing as they hibernate through the winter.

In places where prairie remains or has been restored, this year’s flower show is mostly over, save for goldenrods and asters. Now is the time for the seeds of most plants to ripen and disperse. Adapted as they are for long life, the perennial grasses and flowers of the prairie will send the energy they have produced through the growing season below ground. It’s a good time to recall that much of the life of the prairie exists beneath the surface, where a deep, dense tangle of roots rhizomes and other structures mirrors the growth aboveground in depth and complexity.

Sure, it may still feel like summer today, but October means change for central Illinois.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Religion and Environmental Thought Lecture Series Welcomes Michael Northcott

Religion and Environmental Thought Lecture Series Welcomes Michael Northcott

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Although it would be more comfortable to pretend otherwise, many people live with the understanding that humans are damaging the earth more now than they ever have in the past.

You don’t have to witness it yourself to regret that we annihilate mountains to mine coal in West Virginia. Or that we scour the sea floor of all life in pursuit of fish to eat. Or that we continue to destroy rainforests faster than we can name the species we’re extinguishing in the process. Or that burning fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow may guarantee there is no tomorrow for the many species of plants and animals whose habitats are altered or wiped out altogether by climate change.

Faced with these ongoing disasters of our own making, University of Illinois professor and director of the Program for the Study of Religion, Robert McKim, thinks it essential to ask what guidance the major religious traditions can provide for living in a less damaging way.

Can religion, he asks, serve as a source of hope, optimism, creativity, and new ideas?

McKim is hopeful that it can. For starters, he observes that the changes in outlook and behavior called for by environmentalists are very much in line with the central messages of many religious traditions: to be less selfish, less greedy, less casual about assuming we deserve what we have.

Many religions, he notes, are in fact engaging new thinking about what caring for the earth requires. Some traditions are calling for more sustainable ways of life, for avoiding the destruction of other species, for reducing our carbon footprint, for restoring woodlands and prairie, for stopping the pollution of rivers and lakes with agricultural runoff, and more besides.

In order to promote further dialogue on this topic, McKim has been coordinating a series of lectures in the field of religion and environmental thought. Next week, as part of that series, Professor Michael Northcott from the University of Edinburgh will visit campus to give two lectures, which are open to the public.

On Thursday, October 4th, professor Northcott will speak about the shift in outlook he sees as necessary for a meaningful response to climate change. From Northcott’s perspective, we can’t fix our disordered relationship with the atmosphere without deep reforms in our current ways of living, which, he argues, grow out of a false picture of how humans are connected with one another and the rest of life.

Then on Friday, October 5th, Professor Northcott will speak on the present, massive wave of humanly caused extinctions in light of the first chapters of the book of Genesis. For him, the stories of Adam and Noah speak powerfully to the present human condition and the ecological crisis.

Michael Northcott’s lectures will also serve as book-signing events for the North American launch of his new book, A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming.

Both talks by professor Northcott will take place in the Author's Corner at the Illini Union Bookstore and begin at 4:00 p.m. More information about the “Religion and Environmental Thought” lecture series can be found at the website for the University of Illinois Program for the Study of Religion.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

University of Illinois Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

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University of Illinois Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders

One of the more active environmental groups on campus at the University of Illinois doesn’t have the word “environmental” in its name. It is a student chapter of the international organization, Engineers Without Borders, which partners with developing communities around the world in order to improve their quality of life.

Begun in 2003 at the initiative of students, the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders currently boasts about 100 active members. They range in expertise from first year students to Ph.D. candidates in disciplines that include civil, electrical, and chemical engineering, as well materials science. The members of Engineers Without Borders work with a faculty adviser on each of the projects they undertake, but the students themselves are ultimately responsible for the design and implementation of these projects. In addition, students maintain the organization through their own efforts, which is no mean feat for a group that sends a good percentage of its members out into the world each year.

Tessa Colbrese, a junior in civil engineering, and publicity officer for the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders, emphasizes that the group doesn’t go around looking for things to do, but undertakes projects in response to requests from communities that will be served by them.

She also explains that the group seeks to develop reciprocal, ongoing relationships where they work. In her words, “It’s not just a drop and go arrangement.” Engineers Without Borders provides design and technical assistance, and they raise funds to cover costs such as their own travel expenses. But the communities where they work contribute labor and materials for projects, as well as other services, such as food, housing, and translation.

To date the greatest success for the U of I chapter of Engineers Without Borders is the electrification project it assisted with in rural Orissa, in India. [Photo: UI Engineers Without Borders team members work with local residents to lay out foundation for building to house generator in Orissa.] There, in summer of 2005, they installed a generator intended to provide electricity for spice grinders, a source of revenue, and for lighting in one building in the town. The generator was modified to run on vegetable oil, a biofuel derived from local crops, rather than petroleum-based diesel, which would have been difficult and expensive to bring in. A year after the project was completed a group of students returned to Orissa to find power grids connecting more than 50 homes to the generator, mainly providing electricity for compact-fluorescent lighting. In addition, the community had organized a system under which families take turns providing the vegetable oil to run the generator.

The University of Illinois chapter of Engineers Without Borders currently has seven other projects in the works. These include one that will provide clean water to a village in Nigeria, one that will supply a rural area in Haiti with refrigerators that can operate independently of an electrical grid, and another to develop a device for measuring harmful emissions from indoor cook stoves, which are the source of a host of environmental problems worldwide. They’re even sponsoring a project in Champaign-Urbana to create biodiesel from waste vegetable oil generated by campus dining services that can then be used to power campus vehicles.

Beyond the immediate good that it does, perhaps greatest benefit provided by the U of I student chapter of Engineers Without Borders is sending out graduates who understand and value the importance of meeting human needs by environmentally sustainable means.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Appreciating Illinois Rivers, Celebrating “It’s Our River Day”

Appreciating Illinois Rivers, Celebrating “It’s Our River Day”

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It’s easy enough to live in our part of Illinois without thinking too much about rivers. They are numerous here, but small and heavily altered, and most people encounter them only as they drive over bridges. But stop to dip your toes in one and you are connected to a system that makes life here possible.

Statewide, Illinois boasts 33,000 miles of permanently flowing rivers and streams. If you lined them all up they would stretch the length of the state from north to south 85 times.

We ask a lot of these waterways. More than seven and a half million people in Illinois get their tap water from rivers or other surface water sources, including reservoirs. We hunt and fish and boat and birdwatch on rivers.

We also depend heavily on rivers for taking water away. Cities and industry combine to discharge millions of gallons of treated wastewater into Illinois rivers and streams every day. These waterways are also essential for carrying off storm water, making it possible for people to live and farm in areas that would otherwise remain too wet for such purposes.

Human uses aside, Illinois rivers and streams are home to amazingly diverse aquatic animal communities, including 185 species of fish, 57 species of mussels, and hundreds of species of insects. These aquatic communities are, in turn, interwoven with the wider community of animals that inhabits river corridors, everything from painted turtles and tiger salamanders, to otters, osprey, bald eagles, and herons. Indeed, river corridors account for nearly all of the high quality wildlife habitat that remains in east central Illinois.

All of this is a long way of encouraging you to participate in “It’s Our River Day,” a coordinated effort to promote appreciation for rivers in Illinois, this coming Saturday, September 15th.

You can celebrate “It’s Our River Day” locally at the 10th anniversary Salt Fork River clean-up and workday. As in the past, volunteers of all ages are welcome at this event, where they can help beautify and promote the health of the Salt Fork River by picking up trash and removing invasive plant species.

Cosponsored by Salt Fork River Partners, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the St. Joseph group, Save Our Trees, and Prairie Rivers Network, this year’s clean-up has been moved upstream from it usual headquarters to highlight the new wetland restoration project in St. Joseph. At the wetland, which is being developed by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, volunteers will also have the opportunity to help install nest boxes for wood ducks, purple martins, and bluebirds.

Volunteers for the Salt Fork River clean-up are asked to dress in clothes that can get dirty and bring along work gloves and reusable water bottles if they can. Registration begins at 9:00 a.m. on the St. Joseph-Ogden High School lawn. The first 200 volunteers will receive a free calendar featuring photographs by local residents that highlight the many ways the Salt Fork River enhances our lives.

For more information about the Salt Fork River Clean-up and Work Day via email contact or By phone, call Prairie Rivers Network at 344-2371

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Loda Cemetery Prairie a Jewel Worth Saving and Expanding

Loda Cemetery Prairie a Jewel Worth Saving and Expanding

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By the time many people began to recognize the value of preserving intact natural ecosystems, the tallgrass prairie that had characterized the landscape of east central Illinois for more than eight thousand years had already been destroyed.

As recently as 1820, approximately 60 percent of the state—some 22 million acres—was covered by prairie. By 1900, nearly all of that land had been converted to agriculture or developed for other purposes. Currently, less than one tenth of one percent of the original prairie remains in Illinois—so little that most of us have never seen a bit.

As Jamie Ellis, board president of the Urbana-based conservation group Grand Prairie Friends puts it, “We live in the Prairie State, and we still live in a prairie landscape, but the unique vegetation that we call prairie is virtually nonexistent.”

The extreme scarcity of prairie in Illinois makes it all the more important that we value the places where it remains.

One such place is the Loda Cemetery Prairie, just 30 miles north of Champaign, off of Interstate 57. Prior to its purchase by the Nature Conservancy and official dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1983, this site was slated to be used for burial as the need for space at the cemetery grew. Because it had never plowed or used for pasture, the native plant community there had remained extraordinarily strong. In the initial study of the vegetation at the site, researchers catalogued more than 130 species of prairie plants, which was, in their words, “As many as one can ever hope to find in a single prairie community.”

Since 1983, the Loda Cemetery Prairie has been maintained by the Grand Prairie Friends, who took ownership of the site in 2004. Their mission is to preserve and restore natural communities in east-central Illinois and to promote an understanding and appreciation of natural resources.

At the Loda site, local stewards promote the ecological integrity of the prairie by removing nonnative weeds and cutting or pulling woody brush. Stewards also maintain the quality of the prairie by conducting prescribed burns on a limited basis. Compared to restoration projects where prairie is reestablished on land that has been used for agriculture, remnants of original prairie such as the one at Loda are fairly easy to take care of, since their long established plant communities are inhospitable to invaders.

People, however, are welcome to visit the Loda Cemetery Prairie, which can be seen in its full glory at this time of year.

Right now there is also a historic opportunity to enhance the Loda Prairie, as Grand Prairie Friends has entered an agreement to buy about nine acres adjoining the site. This purchase will allow the group to introduce native plants on additional land, and will serve to buffer the existing prairie from disturbances on its edges.

You can help make this purchase happen and bring back a little bit of prairie by donating to the effort with a tax-deductible gift. Checks should be directed to Grand Prairie Friends, P.O. Box 36, Urbana, Illinois, 61803.

[Would you like to learn more about the tallgrass prairie in Illinois? Click here to see web pages by Ken Robertson, who is a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.]

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Appreciating Hummingbirds in Illinois

Appreciating Hummingbirds in Illinois

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More often than not, when I try to point out hummingbirds to my wife and children, I wind up gesturing toward air. “Hey, guys,” I call, “come see the hummingbird at the . . . oh, never mind.”

That said, the months of August and September provide some of the year’s best opportunities for observing hummingbirds in Illinois. That’s because individuals that have been farther north during the breeding season collect here on their way south.

When I say, “hummingbird,” here I mean “ruby-throated hummingbird,” which is the only species from this family of birds that breeds east of the Mississippi, and the only one commonly seen in Illinois.

All ruby-throats are an iridescent green on the back, and whitish in front, with only adult males sporting the ruby red throat that gives the species its name.

Hummingbirds are perhaps most remarkable for how small they are compared to other birds. Ruby throats are shorter than 4 inches from bill to tail tip, and weigh just three and a half grams. That’s comparable to three and a half grapes, or about midway between the weights of a penny and a nickel.

Despite their small size, many hummingbirds migrate over long distances. Ruby throats heading south may travel 2000 miles to reach their winter territory in southern Mexico and Central America, including a 500-mile nonstop leg of the trip over the Gulf of Mexico.

Hummingbirds are also remarkable for their agility in flight. With wings that beat 53 times a second, they can hold themselves perfectly still in front of a flower, then zip off in any direction—up, down, sideways, or even backwards.

Most people are aware that hummingbirds feed on nectar, which they obtain with their elongated bills. But nectar represents only half of the ruby throat’s diet. The other half is insects. Ruby throats most often catch bugs by “hawking” them, which is to say they wait on an open perch for prey to come by then fly out to grab it from the air. Ruby throats also pick insects and spiders off of trees and flowers, a behavior known as “gleaning.”

People who observe hummingbirds are often struck by how combative they are, despite their delicate appearance. Even where there are multiple sources of food and plenty of perches, hummingbirds chase each other off like lions at a kill.

The easiest way to attract hummingbirds to your yard is to provide food for them. In the long term, you can do this by planting native perennials such as columbine and bee balm, or, better still, trumpet vine, which is a hummingbird favorite with its 3-inch long scarlet flowers. For a quicker fix you can simply put up a hummingbird feeder filled with either commercial imitation nectar or a 20-percent solution of sugar water, for which recipes are widely available in birding books and on the world wide web. [For directions at Hummingbirds Forever click here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Environmental Impacts of Increasing Corn Production

Environmental Impacts of Increasing Corn Production

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You don’t have to be a farmer, or even pay attention to the news, to notice there’s something different about the agricultural landscape of central Illinois this year. Where in past years you might have seen alternating fields of corn and soybeans, this year you often see corn, corn, and more corn.

This observation is reflected in the Crop Acreage Report released at the end of June by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nationwide, corn is being grown on 93 million acres this year, a 19 percent increase over last year and the greatest total number of acres in corn since 1944. In Illinois, the increase in corn acreage from 2006 to 2007 was a bit less dramatic but still substantial at about 11 percent.

Farmers are growing more corn because strong demand—driven largely by the rush to produce ethanol for fuel—has pushed corn prices far above the long-term average. While the boom in corn provides economic benefits to agriculture, it also entails a number of environmental costs.

One potential long-term impact of the current corn boom is pressure to move land out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Under CRP contracts, farmers receive cost-share assistance with conservation projects and annual rental payments on environmentally sensitive land for a specified period of time. In the best cases, CRP parcels help to mitigate the environmental impact of farming on rivers and streams by controlling soil erosion and reducing nutrient runoff. Taking such land out of CRP can, by eliminating the filtering action of streamside buffer strips, have a negative environmental impact far beyond the small additional crop income.

Conservation Reserve Program contracts contain penalties for withdrawing land early, since the up-front public investment in CRP land is designed to provide environmental benefits over time. But already this past spring, the USDA was facing pressure to allow farmers to withdraw from CRP contracts without penalty.

A more immediate potential impact of planting more corn is increased nutrient pollution in waterways, a problem that stretches from the upper Midwest all the way to the oxygen-starved, “dead zone” that forms in the Gulf of Mexico each summer. At some 7,900 square miles, this year’s dead zone is the third largest since monitoring began in 1985. Of course agriculture isn’t alone in the creation of this problem, which is also fed by discharges from industry and sewage treatment plants, as well as fertilizer in runoff from urban and suburban landscaping. But given conventional regimens for fertilizing corn and soybeans, an increase in corn acres would be expected to exacerbate the nutrient problem.

In computer modeling focused on the Embarras River watershed conducted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this summer, University of Illinois researchers Wayland Eheart and Thomas Hu sought to estimate how an increased proportion of corn to soybeans would affect nitrogen runoff. Their study projected that going from half corn and half beans to two-thirds corn would lead to a 29 percent increase in nitrogen runoff. The beans, while they actually produce nitrogen, also act as a sponge to soak up excess nitrogen and store it in the soil more stably for later use by corn. Eliminating the beans disrupts the cycle, causing greater nitrogen runoff.

I suppose the upshot of all of this is to call into question whether public policy that favors expanded production of corn can really be said to benefit the environment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Using Illinois Native Plants for Low Maintenance Landscaping

Using Illinois Native Plants for Low Maintenance Landscaping

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Three years ago as I was mowing the bit of yard between the fence and the alley behind my house I found myself wondering what I could do with this little strip of land that might make it look better and free me from cutting it every week. A conventional flower bed was out of the question since the soil there contains a lot of sand and gravel, and drains very quickly.

Would prairie plants do well there? It seemed worth a try.

I stopped by the Grand Prairie Friends plant sale at Lincoln Square in Urbana where I got great advice and great plants at a rock bottom price. (Alas, plant sales have already ended this year, but they’ll be back next spring.)

Installing the plants was fairly simple. First I mowed the existing grass and weeds as short as I could. Then I covered the ground with layers of newspaper, and piled mulch on top of that to kill off the competition. Finally, I put in my new prairie plants right through holes in the paper and mulch.

Now, I did have to water those plants in that first year, and I still pull weeds from among them. But on the whole, my plan for a low maintenance border composed of prairie plants has worked out quite well.

The planting is anchored by two grasses native to central Illinois, prairie dropseed, which is characterized by slender, flowing leaves, and little bluestem, which turns an attractive straw color in fall and stands up through the winter. Interspersed with these grasses are a variety of native flowers, including some very familiar ones, like purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, as well as some that are a little less conventional, which are my favorites. These include rattlesnake master, Illinois’ tough-as-nails version of a yucca plant, and wild hairy petunia, a low-growing plant that puts out a new array of delicate, lavender flowers each morning, only to drop them in the afternoon.

My own use of native plants to create a low-maintenance border has made me attuned to use of them elsewhere.

The Master Plan for the U of I campus encourages the use of native plants, which are especially noticeable in the landscaping around newer buildings. For example, the plantings around the Siebel Center include prairie dropseed and purple coneflower, as well as a native ginger and spiderwort. Just this spring the strip of land between the sidewalk along Kirby Avenue and the big parking lot west of the Assembly Hall was planted entirely with little bluestem, as a way of beautifying the area and making it easier to maintain.

The City of Urbana, too, favors the use of native perennials in landscapes it maintains. You can see prairie dropseed and little bluestem in the median on Race street downtown. And there’s a more extensive mix of native plants included in the median planting on North Cunningham up near Interstate 74.

I’m reminded here of the quote from Ladybird Johnson that was repeated as people marked her passing last week. In commenting on the use of native flowers to beautify highways she once said, “I want Texas to look like Texas, and Vermont to look like Vermont.”

I suppose you could say that when we use native plants in our landscaping, we let Illinois look like Illinois.

[For an excellent resource check out the book Native Plants in the Home Landscape for the Upper Midwest, published by University of Illinois Extension.]

Thursday, July 19, 2007

U of I Teams Designs and Constructs Self-Sustaining House to Compete in Solar Decathlon

U of I Teams Designs and Constructs Self-Sustaining House to Compete in Solar Decathlon

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Imagine life in a house that takes care of itself. No, not a house that picks up after you. One that harnesses the power of the sun to generate electricity--all of the energy you need for heating and cooling, hot water, lighting, and appliances. Then go a step further, and imagine that your house collects enough extra solar energy to power a small electric car for commuting to work or running errands around town.

For a group of imaginative faculty and students at the University of Illinois, such a house is not a pipe dream, but rather a concrete, near-term goal. They are in the final stages of constructing a three-room, modular house that is entirely self-sustaining. [Left: James Young, a junior in Engineering, works on decks
and wheelchir ramps for the solar house. Photo by Vanda Bidwell for the Champaign

The house will serve as the U of I’s entry in the Solar Decathlon, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition brings together 20 college teams from around the world in a contest “to design, build, and operate the most livable, energy-efficient completely solar-powered house.” [Click here to link to the U of I Solar Decathlon team's website.]

Teams will transport their entries to the National Mall in Washington D.C. this October. There they will be judged on how well they meet demands for energy, as well as their architectural integrity and aesthetic appeal.

The U of I’s entry into the Solar Decathlon has benefited from the involvement of more than a dozen faculty members who have donated their time and expertise to project. In addition, more than 150 undergraduate students, in disciplines that include industrial design, engineering, architecture, and computer science, have played a role in the creation of the house.

Teams competing in the Solar Decathlon will earn points by performing the tasks of everyday life in their houses—cooking, washing dishes, and doing laundry, as well as running a computer and television. Beyond that they must also store enough of the power generated by the house to operate their electric car.

The most practical way to create a house that can meet all of its energy needs with solar power is to reduce the demand for energy through conservation. Thus the walls of the U of I team’s solar house boast four times the insulation value of the current standard for home construction. The windows far exceed current standards, too. They are specially designed to let in light and provide a view, but they are relatively small, and oriented to decrease undesirable warming in the summer.

The solar house generates electricity by means of commercially produced solar panels mounted above the roof. Over the lifetime of the panels, the cost for the electricity they provide will be about the same as if it were purchased from a utility. The energy cost of running the electric vehicle using solar power actually works out to be less than that of a gasoline powered vehicle.

In speaking about the U of I solar house, Ty Newell, a professor of mechanical engineering, and one of many faculty members who has helped to move the project forward, emphasizes that the Solar Decathlon is not about far out technology. Instead, he says “It’s meant to be a display to people that being comfortable and conserving energy aren’t two different things, that we can build a house that requires only 10 percent of the energy a typical house today requires, build it with today’s technologies and show that it saves money.”

I would add that such a display reminds us we have it within our grasp to meet the challenges of rising energy costs and global warming, if we are willing to adjust our priorities.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Appreciating Illinois Crayfish

Appreciating Illinois Crayfish

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Crawdad. Mudbug. Crawfish. Crayfish. Whatever name you know them by, you probably don’t associate these lobster-like, freshwater crustaceans with the traits that give other wildlife their appeal. Crayfish are not warm and fuzzy, and they don’t sing or sport much color. (They do make great eating, but that’s another story.)

I checked in recently with Chris Taylor at the Illinois Natural History Survey to get the scoop on crayfish in our state. Taylor is a crayfish biologist and Curator of Crustaceans there, and he’s eager to help people understand the important role crayfish play in aquatic ecosystems. [Photo: Chris Taylor celebrates the unexpected discovery of a Rusty Gravedigger crayfish outside Mobile, Alabama. This species was formerly thought to be on the verge of extinction, but Taylor and others have found enough additional populations of it to ease that concern.]

Although to most people a crayfish is a crayfish, there are actually 360 species of them in the U.S., 24 of which occur in Illinois. Crayfish inhabit every aquatic environment in the state, from the smallest creeks and ponds to the largest rivers and lakes.

Crayfish that live in permanent water bodies typically spend the daylight hours concealed under rocks or woody debris. Other crayfish, known as burrowers, spend much of their time in tunnels and chambers they excavate in the ground. Some burrowers inhabit the margins of water bodies, but others live in habitats where there is no surface water for much of the year. You’ve likely seen the entrances to crayfish burrows even if you didn’t know what you were looking at. They are recognizable by the mud chimneys that rise several inches above them, which are formed from material that crayfish excavate with their claws.

All Illinois crayfish are most active from dusk to dawn, when they come out from under cover to forage for food and seek out mates. Depending on circumstances, crayfish may eat just about anything they can get their claws on, including plant material and carrion. But recent studies suggest they prefer live animal food--insects, snails, and even small fish. Crayfish in turn serve as a critical food source for sunfish and bass, but also show up on the menu for any number of wading birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Aside from biologists and environmental writers, I suppose few adults bother to ever catch crayfish. But if you get children into shallow, clear water, and show them how to find crayfish by turning over rocks, you may have trouble getting them to stop. Crayfish flee danger by a powerful flip of the tail that propels them backward. They are just fast enough to be difficult to catch, but not so fast as to be impossible.

There are two important things people can do to help promote the health of crayfish populations in Illinois. The first is to support efforts to conserve and restore aquatic environments. The second is to never release crayfish into a body of water they weren’t taken from. Many species of crayfish occur in very limited ranges, and so can be lost altogether when aggressive outsiders are introduced. One invader, the rusty crayfish, which was probably introduced by anglers dumping out unused live bait, has already displaced native crayfish from many waters in the northern half of Illinois.

Although the role of crayfish in aquatic ecosystems has been sometimes neglected in the past, scientists like Chris Taylor are working hard to further our understanding of them today. That understanding benefits all of us who love the outdoors and value the health of natural resources.

Article "The Rusty Crayfish in Illinois" from Illinois Natural History Survey Reports.

Sea-Grant fact sheet on Rusty Crayfish

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Biofuel Crops as Invasives? The Importance of Weighing the Risks and Benefits

Biofuel Crops as Invasives? The Importance of Weighing the Risks and Benefits

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You’ve probably heard of kudzu, a.k.a. “the vine that ate the South.” And if you’ve traveled in the South, you’ve likely seen how this monster overwhelms the landscape. But did you know that kudzu, which is native to Asia, was initially introduced on purpose, touted as a forage crop and a means of erosion control? If southerners knew then what they know now about kudzu, they would never have bought it.

The same can be said of landowners and stewards of natural areas in Illinois who bought the idea that exotic plants such as autumn olive, bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose could be safely introduced to improve the landscape of the Midwest. If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have put entire ecosystems at risk by planting these exotic invaders. And we wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars at the state level each year—and billions nationally—to combat the problems associated with invasive plants.

Or would we?

In hindsight, we can see that our willingness to adopt exotic plants in attempts to solve ecological problems in the past was based on slipshod decision making. Policy makers and the public alike accepted claims about the supposed benefits of establishing nonnative plants without solid support. And we asked far too few questions about the potential costs—both economic and ecological—of such introductions.

Knowing what we know now about the catastrophic consequences of introducing the wrong plants, you would think we’d have adopted a rigorous process governing all large-scale plant introductions.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to some of the plants now being investigated as potential biofuels, especially the perennial grasses, such as miscanthus. And in the current social and political climate, there’s so much pressure to develop biofuels that some scientists who study the ecology and management of invasive plant species are concerned we may be headed down the kudzu path all over again.

In a paper published last September [If you're logged into a computer on the UIUC campus or elsewhere with a subscription to Science online you can click here to open the paper in a new window], S. Raghu of the Illinois Natural History Survey and six colleagues from around the country call attention to how little serious analysis is being devoted to the potential consequences of cultivating nonnative grasses for biofuel. Indeed, they point out that six of the eight ecological traits identified as ideal for biomass energy crops are also traits that contribute to the potential for an introduced plant to become invasive. They further explain that it is nearly impossible to eradicate or even control invading grasses once they are established.

Raghu and colleagues acknowledge the potential benefits of introducing some plant species as sources of biofuel. But they call for a policy of first establishing the safety of such introductions by means of stringent agronomic and ecological analysis, the sort of up-front studies that are already required for other beneficial introductions, such as biological control agents and transgenic plants.

Perhaps the best way to think about whether the large-scale introduction of a given plant species makes sense would be to ask whether, or at what price, a person could buy insurance that would compensate for the damage that species might cause were it to become invasive. Without the answer to that question we don’t have enough information to develop sound policy.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Appreciating Turkey Vultures

Appreciating Turkey Vultures

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If you watch the sky as you travel by car in warm weather, you’re likely to see soaring birds from time to time, even if you don’t count yourself a birder.In our part of the country, most of the large soaring birds you’ll see are turkey vultures, which you can recognize from a long way off without binoculars or a field guide.

Turkey vultures in flight are identified by their large size—they have a six-foot wingspan—their blackish color above and below, and their manner of flight. Turkey vultures hold their wings in a shallow dihedral, or “v” shape, and constantly tilt back and forth. They are so skilled at using rising currents of warm air for lift that you’ll rarely see a turkey vulture flap its wings, even if you watch and wait for it to do so.

A group of turkey vultures circling together is called a kettle. A kettle may form as vultures come together to take advantage of an updraft for gaining altitude, or as they scan the countryside looking for food. It is not, by any means, a sure sign that something below has died.

Turkey vultures are very well equipped to search for food on the wing. They have excellent vision, which is not uncommon in birds, as well as an extraordinary sense of smell, which is. A turkey vulture’s sense of smell allows it to locate carrion even when it is concealed from above by a forest canopy.

Turkey vultures are not at all picky about which animals they eat, as long as they are dead. A turkey vulture’s diet may include anything from dead domestic livestock to roadkilled animals like skunks, raccoons and deer, or even turtles and snakes. This is not to say that turkey vultures have no preferences, as they have been shown to select recently dead animals over more decayed food when given a choice. Turkey vultures also eat varying amounts plant material, presumably more when carrion is scarce.

If you happen to see a turkey vulture close up, you’re likely to notice its red, featherless head. In this feature, as well as its bulky, brownish-black profile, the turkey vulture resembles the wild turkey, which is where it gets its name. Being bald allows the turkey vulture to poke its head right into a carcass and not wind up capturing little bits of its meal in hard-to-clean feathers.

Couple the turkey vulture’s bald head with its cast-iron digestive system, and you’ve got a very effective processor of carrion.

Now, I realize that you might be inclined to leave off contemplating turkey vultures as they soar in the sky, half a mile away. But I think looking at them more closely really can foster a deeper appreciation for the diversity and complexity of life. After all, without turkey vultures and other decomposers, life as we know it simply wouldn’t be possible.

Turkey Vultures on the Web:

The Turkey Vulture Society

Turkey Vulture entry on Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds"

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Introducing University of Illinois Extension’s Big Tree Program

Introducing University of Illinois Extension’s Big Tree Program

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Picture a sycamore tree that’s 119 feet tall, as tall as 13-story building. Now make the trunk of your tall tree wide, 31 feet around at chest height, so you would need five friends with you in order to touch your hands together in a circle around it. Then give your giant sycamore a crown that spreads out to an average width of 134 feet, 15 feet wider than the tree is tall (and more than wide enough to cover the lots many of us live on). As you might have guessed, such a tree does exist. It stands on private property in Christian County, and it is the champion of champions on the Illinois Big Tree Register.

The register is one component of the Illinois Big Tree Program, which is based in the U of I’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and coordinated by extension forester, Jay Hayek. [Photo: Volunteer Big Tree Inspectors measure the girth of the state--and national--champion Shumard Oak (Quercus Shumardii) in Union County, Illinois. Photo by Larry Mahan.] The goal of the Big Tree Program is to identify the biggest individual of every species of tree native to Illinois, using a scoring system that takes into account height, girth, and crown spread. At the same time, however, the Big Tree Program is also very much about people—promoting a greater awareness of trees as a natural resource in Illinois, and encouraging people to get out and enjoy them.

To help people get connected with the Big Tree Program, Hayek has established a web site for it. There you can read how big tree measurements are taken, obtain a form to nominate a tree, and view the list of 125 current state champions. Entries on the list include measurements, of course, along with information about where each tree is located, who nominated it, and when it was certified.

The tallest tree on the list reaches a height of 165 feet, which is 46 feet taller than the overall champion. It’s a red oak found in Dixon Springs State Park, near the far southern tip of the state. The champion listed with the thickest trunk is a baldcypress tree that measures 34 feet around, which grows in the Cache River State Natural Area, also in the far south.

Residents of central Illinois may be interested to know that Sangamon County is home to eight champion trees, more than any other county in the state. These include a 98-foot-tall American elm and an 88-foot tall silver maple. The state champion trees closest to Champaign-Urbana are a shingle oak and a yellow buckeye located in Danville. Both of these trees grow on private property, but they can be seen from the street at the addresses listed for them on the Big Tree Register.

If big trees interest you, you might consider joining the network of certified Big Tree inspectors that extension forester Jay Hayek is working to develop throughout Illinois. Volunteer inspectors participate in a one-day workshop where they learn to measure and certify Big Tree Champions using fairly simple equipment and straightforward math. Hayek envisions training enough inspectors to check out reports of potential champions anywhere in the state, and to help make sure champion trees are recertified every 10 years.

The next Big Tree inspector workshop will be conducted at the Sugar Grove Nature Center in Funks Grove, Illinois, southwest of Bloomington, on Saturday, June 16. For more information about that workshop call the Sugar Grove Nature Center at (309) 874-2174, or click here for a PDF version of the registration form.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Master Naturalists Volunteer for Conservation

Master Naturalists Volunteer for Conservation

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In his day job, Doug Mills helps University of Illinois instructors make good use of computers and the World Wide Web in their teaching. At home, he’s a husband and father who is heavily involved in the lives of his children, with the soccer games, swim meets and youth group activities that entails.

But on certain evenings this Spring, Doug has been listening to the call of the wild. Well, the mating calls of frogs and toads, actually.

You see, in addition to his family and work, Doug is keenly interested in the natural world. And in the past year he has found a way to pursue that interest through the East Central Illinois Master Naturalist Program.

Sponsored cooperatively by University of Illinois Extension, the Urbana Park District, and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the Master Naturalist Program aims to educate a corps of volunteers to provide support for the conservation, management, and interpretation of natural resources in our area.

Doug Mills was among the participants in the first Master Naturalist training course, which was conducted last Fall. From early on, he knew that he wanted to devote his volunteer hours to conservation efforts involving reptiles and amphibians.

In cooperation with Dan Olson, Director of Natural Resources for the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, Doug initiated frog call surveys to establish some baseline data about the frogs and toads that inhabit Forest Preserve sites. Such surveys are a standard method for gathering information about these critters, since they can be difficult to see, but are readily identified by their vocalizations during the mating season. [See Doug's frog blog at]

Doug is conducting his surveys at the Homer Lake and River Bend County Forest Preserves. So far he has visited each site twice and has plans to return three more times.

He begins listening at about sunset, walking a predetermined circuit and recording information about the numbers and species of frogs and toads he hears. So far he has found two species of toads and five species of frogs, including grey treefrogs, which are of particular interest because they seem to be declining in central Illinois.

Beyond establishing a baseline for future investigations, the information about frogs and toads provided by Doug’s surveys will also help the Forest Preserve District gauge the quality of the sites it maintains, since the presence or absence of frogs is an indicator of ecosystem health.

Now, having said so much about frog call surveys, I should emphasize that most of the people who participated in last Fall’s Master Naturalist training have not been tramping around after dark listening to amorous amphibians.

Some have become trail stewards with the Forest Preserve District, while others have volunteered for workdays at Urbana Park District sites. Many have also assisted with the Grand Prairie Friends Spring plant sales, as well as volunteering for stream clean-ups, prairie burns, and numerous other conservation efforts.

If you would like to explore the possibility of becoming a Master Naturalist yourself you can learn more about the program by contacting University of Illinois Extension’s Champaign County office. Applications for Fall 2007 training are available via their website [click here] or by phone (217.333.7672), and are being accepted through July 27.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

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Toward a More Sustainable Home Landscape

For many of us, the arrival of summer means the beginning of the lawn care season, especially when the weather cooperates. It’s probably not news to you that conventional lawncare has a significant negative impact on the environment. But that is not to say people can’t enjoy the benefits of a yard without compromising their own health, or the health of the planet.

Before I get into what’s wrong with conventional lawn care, I should emphasize that I like turf in my yard. My children play waffle-ball and run around there. I play waffle-ball and run around there. We have picnics, we wash the car, we catch up with the neighbors, we hang out laundry now and then. I even like the way grass looks.

But to maintain grass for these purposes does not require that we participate in the ongoing environmental degradation caused by conventional lawn care.

According to the US EPA, Americans spend $25 billion a year on lawn care. Residential lawns and gardens are doused with 80 million pounds of chemical pesticides and 70 million tons of fertilizers annually, with far reaching environmental impacts.

A portion of that fertilizer runs off into local streams, degrading those waters immediately, and eventually causing harm as far away as the Gulf of Mexico. The insecticides used to fight pests in the yard typically kill all bugs, not just the ones we mean to target, and they pose health risks to those who apply them as well as children and pets who come into contact with them.

An additional negative impact stems from the impulse to keep lawns perfectly green throughout the summer by watering them. Excessive lawn watering represents a misuse of fresh water, already a scarce resource in some parts of the U.S., and one that we’re just beginning to value properly in the Midwest.

I mean to outline here some of the changes individuals can make toward creating a more sustainable home landscape, but for particulars let me also encourage you to explore the resources linked below.

For high impact change, nothing beats cutting down on the amount of your yard kept as turf. Most of us maintain more grass area than we need, or even want, out of inertia. Our yards are covered in grass when we get them, and we’re not highly motivated to change that. But if we make the initial investment of time and energy to replace part of a lawn with native perennials, we liberate ourselves from some part of lawn care forever, and benefit the environment at the same time.

We can also cut down on the environmental impact associated with our yards by some basic changes in our practices: watering grass less frequently but more deeply, mowing to a height of three inches rather than pursuing that fairway look, and using organic alternatives to the ubiquitous commercial products--dry compost for fertilizer, or corn gluten as a weed preventer, for example.

A lawn managed according to sustainable principles may not meet the aesthetic standard set by pictures advertising conventional lawn care products. But it can serve our needs and contribute to the long-term health of our environment.

Ecology Action Center (Bloomington IL) Yard Smart pages:

National Audubon Society "Healthy Yard" pages:

National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Pages