Thursday, October 30, 2008

Celebrating Owls at Halloween

Celebrating Owls at Halloween

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If you’ve ever been awakened by the call of a screech owl, you know why people associate owls with all things eerie. But as Halloween approaches, I like to take time to appreciate the creatures of the night. The biggest fans of such creatures at my house are my children, Jane and Will, and they’ve joined me today to celebrate owls.

As birds that work the night shift, owls are equipped with some fascinating adaptations that enable them to locate and capture prey in the dark.

Will, would you tell about owls’ eyes.

Will: Sure. Owls see very well in low light. Their eyes are extra large for their bodies, and their retinas are super sensitive.

Since owls can’t move their eyes up and down or side to side the way we do, they have to move their heads instead. Sometimes it looks like an owl can turn its head around in a complete circle, but they can’t go quite that far.

Rob: Jane, why don’t you talk about how owls’ hearing helps them function in the dark?

Jane: Okay. Owls possess excellent hearing, which allows them to find prey they can’t see--like a mouse scratching for food under a pile of leaves. Owls’ ears are surrounded by deep, soft feathers that can be spread to make a sound-collecting funnel. The dish shape created by the owl’s face is also thought to collect and focus sound. It’s said that an owl can hear a mouse squeak from half a mile away!

Dad, we should also tell people that an owl’s ears are openings in the side of its head. Those tufts on top of some species are display feathers, which have nothing to do with hearing.

Rob: Thanks, Jane. I would add that while owls hear very well, they are also good at not being heard as the fly. They have specially adapted flight feathers that reduce the noise made by air passing over their wings. This allows them to swoop in on prey undetected.

Will, maybe you could say more about owls as hunters.

Will: Owls use their powerful feet and sharp talons to attack and hold prey. And just about any small animal can be prey for one owl or another.

Owls eat some small animals, like insects, worms, scorpions, crayfish, frogs and snakes.

Jane: Jane again. Owls also prey on mice, rats, voles, rabbits, squirrels, and many kinds of birds. The great horned owl, which has a poor sense of smell, even makes a habit of eating skunks.

You can tell what owls have eaten because they cough up pellets containing fur, bones, and other material they can’t digest.

Rob: One way to find owls during the day is to look for these pellets and for large splashes of owl whitewash at the base of trees, especially evergreens, and then look up.

Will: Or maybe you’d rather enjoy owls from a distance.

Jane: Listen to the great horned owl—

All: Halloween is just around the corner.

Credit for audio of owls calls to the Macauley Library at the
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
, Ithaca, New York. Special thanks to Tammy Bishop for her help!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Sangamon River Forest Preserve a testament to the value provided by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

New Sangamon River Forest Preserve a testament to the value provided by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

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I was delighted to learn this summer that the Champaign County Forest Preserve District had acquired a new 160-acre property along the Sangamon River north of Mahomet. I’m a frequent visitor to the four other preserves maintained by the district--River Bend and Lake of the Woods near Mahomet, Middle Fork River Forest Preserve in the northeast corner of the county, and Homer Lake--but one thing or another kept me from exploring the new preserve until earlier this week

I arrived there at mid morning under a clear blue sky. A red-tailed hawk wheeled overhead as I collected myself in the parking lot, and a large flock of white-throated sparrows, just in from their breeding territory in the north, brought to life the weedy edges and a brush pile nearby. The buzz of late-season insects provided a backdrop of sound, and as I began to walk each step through the drying grass flushed another handful of grasshoppers with wings that flashed yellow and black.

As an angler I always incline toward water, whether or not I’m going fishing, so I took the path that follows a small stream called Wildcat Slough to its confluence with the Sangamon River. The banks of the river are marked occasionally by crossings where the mud has been churned by hooves, confirming that good numbers of white-tailed deer use the preserve. Standing along the water’s edge were many of the “Y” shaped sticks that people fashion to prop up fishing rods, which tell at least that the river provides recreation, and maybe food, too.

Massive oak trees that predate European settlement are the most distinctive feature of the Sangamon River Forest Preserve. Some are scattered along the river, while others cluster together on an upland savanna. These trees provide a living link to the landscape the Forest Preserve District intends to restore at the site, which will also include significant prairie restorations.

In addition to the magnificent oaks at the preserve, an ancient and enormous green ash tree grows in the floodplain there. Forest Preserve executive director Jerry Pagac likes to note that it takes seven people to encircle it with their arms. [Photo: I wanted a person in the picture to provide scale but I was on my own at this point. So I propped my camera on my hat and used the timer to take a picture of me with the tree.] Use of an increment borer to count the annual rings confirmed that this giant ash tree is 206 years old. Many younger native trees also grow in the bottomland at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve, planted there with an eye toward the benefit of future generations by Ron and Karen Cook, the previous owners of the property.

Although the Sangamon River Forest Preserve is not yet widely known, and I was there on a Monday, I ran into other people enjoying the trails throughout my visit, evidence, I think, of the great value natural areas have for people who live in highly developed landscapes, as we do in east central Illinois.

If you value natural areas for conservation and recreation, you should be aware that on November 4th voters in Champaign County will be asked to approve a modest increase in the tax levy that supports the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. The additional revenue generated by the increase would be used to repair or replace aging infrastructure at current preserves, help establish and maintain the long-anticipated bike trail between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park, and make possible the acquisition of additional land for preserves along rivers and streams in the future.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

U of I faculty, local Christian leaders engage environmental issues from complementary perspectives

U of I faculty, local Christian leaders engage environmental issues from complementary perspectives

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I may be wrong, but I’m hopeful that most people meet news about the multiple and far-reaching environmental crises taking shape around the world today with the same sort of questions that occur when they encounter a minor car crash or some other day-to-day catastrophe--questions like, “What’s the damage?” “How did this happen?” “What can I do to help?” and “What should I do?”

When people ask such questions about environmental issues, it’s natural to look to university research for answers about the extent and causes of problems. Scientific study documents well catastrophes such as climate change and species loss, and it provides sophisticated models of what the future holds under varying sets of conditions. But when people wonder about what their obligations are in the face of environmental crises, they are apt to seek guidance in religion. As Robert McKim, head of the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois says, “Most people within a hundred miles of Champaign-Urbana are more likely to be influenced by what their churches say than by what academics say.”

With that thought in mind, McKim and a like-minded group of UI faculty from wide range of disciplines have this year launched an ongoing, extracurricular effort called the STEWARDship (Sustaining The Earth With Allied Religious Denominations) workshop. Its mission is to “bring together scientists, Christian leaders, ethicists, environmentalists, and scholars of religion with a view to sharing resources, and to promoting reflection, mutual understanding, and concern regarding our environmental responsibilities.” They have been joined in this effort by Ken Cuffey, president of the Urbana Theological Seminary, and Ken Howell, director of the Institute of Catholic Thought at the St. John’s Newman Center on campus.

The first event conducted by the STEWARDship workshop took place this past June. It was a small conference on campus that brought together interested U of I faculty with leaders from churches in and around Champaign-Urbana, and it focused specifically on Christianity and stewardship of the earth.

The STEWARDship Workshop will host its second event, which is free and open to all later this month, on Saturday, October 25. This event will consist of a morning of presentations and discussion about some of the ways Christianity speaks to the environmental implications of contemporary American modes of living. Speakers will include three professors from the University of Illinois. Jeff Brawn, who is an ornithologist with broad expertise in ecology, will talk about the consequences for biodiversity of ever-increasing human demands for land and energy. Paul McNamara, who is a professor of consumer and family economics, will address the issue of how churches can help their members move toward sustainable lifestyles with a better understanding of the economics of consumption. And U of I Professor of law Eric Freyfogle will speak on the impediments to collective action that hamper our ability to deal with all manner of problems.

Each of these half-hour talks will be followed by an equal amount of time for discussion, so this really is designed to be a participatory event rather than a morning of lecture. The workshop will be held at the Westminster Presbyterian Church at 1700 Crescent Drive in Champaign, and last from 9:00 a.m. until noon. Details are available at

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Aesthetic appeal, sustainability combined in “Passive House” under construction north of Urbana

Aesthetic appeal, sustainability combined in “Passive House” under construction north of Urbana

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Two miles north of Urbana, Margaret and Gregory Stanton are building a new house on the site of Margaret’s childhood home, where they plan to live in retirement. When it’s finished, from the road you’ll see an attractive, prairie-style house that’s two stories in the center with a single story annex on one side and a generous wraparound porch.

What you won’t be able to see from the road is that this is the house of the future.

The Stanton house is being built to the world’s highest standard for energy-efficiency, certification as a Passive House. (Here “passive” means that the house will require little, if any, heating beyond the warmth naturally generated by people, appliances, and lighting.) This standard was developed in Europe, where some 10,000 buildings have been built or remodeled to meet it in the past 10 years. The Stantons learned of the Passive House standard through Katrin Klingenberg and Mike Kernagis, who together founded and operate Passive House Institute U. S., which is headquartered in Urbana. The institute is actively engaged in a wide range of activities to further the implementation of Passive House standards and techniques nationwide, including education, research and consulting.

I call the Stanton house the “house of the future” because it represents a giant leap forward in energy-efficiency, but I should emphasize that this leap is accomplished with technology and materials that are readily available today, and at a very modest premium in the cost of construction.

To meet the Passive House standard, the Stanton house will minimize thermal losses. This means, in part, that it is extremely well insulated. The envelope of the house is made up of two components, both of which are filled with insulation: an exterior wall composed of 12” thick, box-like panels, and an interior wall built on 2 X 4 studs. The slab on which the house is built and the roof are both also super-insulated. In addition, all of the windows have three panes, rather than just two. Thermal losses are further minimized by the great care taken to eliminate air leaks, so no pipes or electrical conduits penetrate the exterior wall. In all, these measures prevent the transfer of heat up to three times as well as typical new construction.

In addition to minimizing thermal losses, Passive Houses are designed to maximize thermal gains. The Stanton house will take advantage of the warmth provided by the sun in winter with glass doors and extensive windows on the south side.

The materials used in the construction of the Stanton house were also chosen with regard for their overall impact on the environment, from the types of insulation used, to the floor finishes, paint, and exterior siding. In addition, the systems that use energy in the home, such as appliances and lighting, are as efficient as possible, and a solar system is used to supply hot water. The Stantons were even able reuse materials that they salvaged from the house that Margaret grew up in, especially the Douglas fir roof framing, which has gone into the exposed architectural beams, railings, and trim of the new home.

For the extra investments the Stantons have made in the construction of their home, they expect to reap substantial benefits. They anticipate spending 70-80% less on gas and electric bills, and using 90% less energy for heating and cooling than they would in a conventionally built house. They will also be living out the principles of good stewardship held by Margaret’s late mother, whose example of sustainable living led to the couple’s interest in the Passive House concept.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away

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Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away

It’s a disappointing fact of life for residents of east central Illinois that we have few opportunities to experience wildlife in great abundance. We have forest patches, prairie reconstructions, and stream corridors where we can observe and hunt and fish, but these fragmentary habitats aren’t home to great numbers of many creatures, unless you count insects. But fall brings us the opportunity to witness a truly impressive concentration of one magnificent species of bird only a couple of hours away. It’s the gathering of southward bound sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana.

As of this week there are some 200-300 sandhill cranes at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next month and a half until they peak at more than 10,000 in mid-November. This is a small fraction of the better known sandhill crane gathering that takes place on the Platte River in Nebraska each year, but it is still a remarkable sight to behold.

Sandhill cranes are among the largest birds that occur in North America. They stand about four feet tall, and have a wingspan that may stretch from six to seven feet. With their long legs and neck they bear some resemblance to the great blue herons that we can see year round, but sandhill cranes are identifiable by their uniformly gray plumage and bald head, which is bright red in adults. If you want to impress your friends by distinguishing between cranes and herons in flight, you need only remember that flying cranes stretch their necks out straight forward, while herons curve theirs back against the body in an “S.” Cranes are also far more gregarious than great blue herons, and it is typical to see them flying together in flocks that stretch out like long ribbons in the sky, rather than alone, as herons do. Adult crane pairs remain together year round, and crane young born in spring and summer stick with their parents through the southward migration in fall.

You will often know that sandhill cranes are coming before you see them from their bugling calls, which carry great distances, and sound as ancient as anything you’ll hear. And sandhill cranes should sound ancient. Their skeletal structure is identical to that of a 10 million-year-old crane fossil that was found in Nebraska, which makes them the oldest known species of bird now living on earth.

The most fascinating thing sandhill cranes do is dance. As they come together in the evening prior to roosting they seem to charge each other up, like children arriving at a birthday party. First one bows, and flaps its wings then does a little leap into the air. Then its neighbors join in and the energy ripples through the larger flock.

The best way to see large numbers of sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area is to spend an hour or two before sunset at the observation deck. There you can watch the cranes come in to a grassy field where they gather before flying out to roost in the marshes at night. If you arrive earlier in the day you can see individual cranes and smaller flocks in harvested agricultural fields nearby. Binoculars are essential for this trip, and a more powerful spotting scope is helpful if you have access to one.

Details about viewing sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski are available on the web through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. In addition, you may want to check in with the Champaign County Audubon Society, which conducts a field trip to see the cranes in November.