Thursday, April 23, 2009

Reader questions about birds

Reader questions about birds

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A reader in Elburn, Illinois, west of Chicago, wrote, I have three sandhill cranes [pictured] nesting in my backyard right now. I saw on a Website that they are endangered in Illinois and was curious if that is really true.

Sandhill cranes, which are among the most magnificent birds of North America, and cousins to the endangered whooping crane, were never threatened nationally, but they were absent as a breeding bird in Illinois from 1872 to 1979. Over the past couple of decades, however, the number of sandhill cranes breeding in the state has increased steadily, and in 2000 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources counted 140 individuals in northeast Illinois. Since then, the population has increased by an annual rate of 33 percent. Hence the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board is currently in the process of removing sandhill cranes from the list of state threatened birds.

According to Mike Ward, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey at the UI and a member of the technical committee that advises the state Endangered Species Protection Board, there is an unfortunate flip side to this story, though. That’s because the recent success of sandhill cranes in the state is attributable to changes in the structure of wetlands that are detrimental the majority of other birds that depend on them for breeding. So while sandhill cranes have increased, seven other species of wetland birds have experienced statistically significant population declines. Most notable among these are common moorhens, black terns, least bitterns, and yellow-headed Blackbirds.

A neighbor called recently to ask, what should I do with the nest where a mallard has laid eggs in a bush by our house?

The best thing people can do for nesting birds is to leave them alone and keep pets away from them. It’s okay to replace eggs or baby birds that have fallen from a nest—bird parents really are not put off by scents from human handling—but the general principle to follow is “let wildlife stay wild.”

This principle applies to baby rabbits, baby deer, and other critters as well.

A reader in Champaign County e-mailed to ask, when can we expect to see eastern bluebirds and American goldfinches return? Are they already in transit from their winter quarters?

Experienced birders love to field the question about goldfinches because the answer comes as such a surprise. The fact is goldfinches do not leave Illinois for the winter. [Photo: a male American goldfinch in transition from winter to breeding plumage.]When they molt in the fall both males and females of the species put on a coat of olive feathers so drab that many people don’t recognize them. It’s when they molt again in spring that the appearance of male goldfinches becomes remarkable as their bright yellow breeding plumage comes in.

Bluebirds that breed in Illinois don’t move far for the winter, either, migrating only as they are forced to by weather and limits on the availability of food. Some bluebirds can be seen in east central Illinois through most winters. Bluebirds that have wintered farther south move back to or through the Midwest between the end of February and early May.

While we’re on the topic of migration, I would add that the next three weeks or so offer some of the best bird-watching opportunities of the year, as brightly colored warblers and other long-distance migrants return to their breeding territories.

If you’re wondering where to start seeing them, the Sunday morning bird walks conducted by the Champaign County Audubon Society at Busey Woods in Urbana offer a great place to start. These walks depart from the Anita Purves Nature Center at 7:30 a.m. and last as long as participants care to stay out.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Champaign 4th graders collaborate with UI students to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species

Champaign 4th graders collaborate with UI students to raise awareness about aquatic invasive species

***Don't miss the video at the end of this post by Franklin Middle School students who participated in the Community Stewardship program***

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Today’s Environmental Almanac comes to you courtesy of students from Zanne Newman’s class at Stratton Elementary School in Champaign. This Spring, some of Newman’s fourth graders have been working with University of Illinois students enrolled in a service learning program called Community Stewardship through Environmental Education, which is offered cooperatively by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Program, the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Through this program, the university students have taught the school children about some of the invasive species that are disrupting aquatic ecosystems in Illinois, and collaborated with them on stewardship projects designed to create public awareness about these creatures. [Photo: Stratton 4th graders recording their songs with WILL audio production manager Mike Pritchard, and with UI student Sam Gallardo, who provided guitar accompaniment, in the background.]

The students from Stratton decided to communicate their messages in songs, the lyrics of which are printed below. These songs were also recorded for radio with the help of WILL audio production manager Mike Pritchard, and you can listen to them by clicking on one of the audio links at the top of this post.

We’re Water Fleas

We’re water fleas, we’re like bees,
We have sharp spikes on our knees,
We can also spread with a lot of ease,
We’re water fleas.

There’s no way you can stop me
There’s no way you can stop me

I’ll bring down your fishing industry with an army,
I’ll beat out your natives, and your fish can’t eat me.

There’s no way you can stop me
There’s no way you can stop me

We’re water fleas!

Fishhook Flea Rap

Yo yo Mr. Fishhook Flea,
You're trouble to the billion dollar fishing industry,
I wanna get rid of you and set my lake free,
I’m not sure how but prevention is the key.

Once you're here you're hard to get out,
You clog up my nets and make my fish pout,
So listen up everybody have no fear,
If you want these pests gone clean up your gear.

Zebra Mussel Scallywags

Yo ho, yo ho we’ll take your ship,
Yo ho we’re zebra mussels ya know!

We’ll clog up your pipes, we’ll drive up the price,
We’ll take your water and you won’t know where it goes.

Yo ho, yo ho the lake will overflow,
You will never be able to catch us you know!
You can't stop us.

Yo ho, yo ho we came from Russia, now you better shova!

Zebra Mussel Pirate Song

Yo ho yo ho, if you wanna get rid of these zebra mussels, then heed this advice and listen up.

They come over here from the Caspian Sea,
'Til theyre dumped in our lakes and then they’re free.
They travel in groups, they clog up our pipes,
They kill native mussels, and cause a great fright.
Yo ho, yo ho preventing their spread is the key.

Rusty Crayfish Blues

Don’t want you here
We want you gone
Go away!
You won't be bait,
We'll clean our boats,
You’re not our pet,
If only you
If only you
Go away!

We Are Crayfish

We are crayfish,
We are crayfish,
We are crayfish.

We are the mighty crayfish and we came from Ohio,
Our lakes of crayfish we aren't takin' care of so,
And we are very dangerous you know.

We eat the eggs of native fish,
Your poor fish don't make it out of the dish,
Those fish make a tasty dish.

If you swim in our lakes we will make you dance,
If you swim in our lakes we will make you dance,
Because we will pinch your pants.

The Community Stewardship through Environmental Education course culminates with the “Nab the Aquatic Invaders! Community Stewardship Fair,” where all of the groups involved with the program will be present their projects. The fair, which is free and open to all, takes place on Thursday, April 23, from 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. at the Champaign Public Library.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

From the Boneyard Creek Community Day to the Gulf of Mexico

From the Boneyard Creek Community Day to the Gulf of Mexico

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If you were to launch your kayak in the Boneyard Creek on the University of Illinois campus and paddle downstream until you hit the Gulf of Mexico, you would travel roughly 1,400 miles on the water. From the Boneyard you would take the Saline Branch to the Salt Fork on into the main stem of the Vermilion River, which would lead you to the mighty Mississippi by way of the Wabash, and the Ohio. That’s a long trip in a small boat, and not one that any of us is likely to undertake. But it could be done. My point in imagining it is to emphasize the fact that our waterways, even the very small ones, connect us directly with the all the waters of the wider world.

Unfortunately for the Gulf of Mexico, that connection brings pollution from rivers that drain most of the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. That pollution causes the notorious dead zone in the Gulf, which last year encompassed an area of more than 8,000 square miles, almost the size of New Jersey.

According to a report issued recently by the United States Geological Survey, Illinois is responsible for a large share of pollution in the Gulf. (The report is not written for a general audience, but it is available online at than one third of the top 150 polluting watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin are located in the Prairie State. The watershed containing Chicago is identified as the worst single contributor to the problem, but in overall terms agricultural watersheds are responsible for the greatest share of the nutrient pollution emanating from Illinois.

Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network, says the US Geological Survey’s findings demonstrate the need for better enforcement of regulations requiring sewage treatment plants to clean up their discharge. But Collins emphasizes that the Survey’s findings also show a great need for farm programs that encourage less polluting practices in agriculture.

In the face of problems as large as the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone you might be tempted never to stick a toe in the water at all. But if citizens of Illinois—whose activities are a significant cause of the problem—are not engaged, then there is little hope that the issue will ever be resolved. So try this.

Start the movement toward a healthier Gulf of Mexico right at the point where my imaginary kayak journey began, where the Boneyard Creek flows through the Engineering quad on the U of I campus. That’s where this year’s Boneyard Creek Community Day, which will take place on Saturday, April 18th, will be centered. [Photo: Volunteers at last year's BCCD remove trash from the creek at Scott Park in Champaign.] Volunteers participating in the community day will be able to choose from a number of activities to promote a healthier creek, from picking up trash, to marking storm drains, to helping naturalize the banks by removing invasive plants and planting native species.

Full details about this event are available on the Web at

While the activities of the Boneyard Creek Community day will benefit us locally, they won’t go far resolve the problem of nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. But if these activities lead people to the greater political engagement that does resolve larger challenges, then that’s a start.

Thanks today to Drew Phillips of the Illinois State Geological Survey for calculating the river distance from the U of I to the Gulf of Mexico.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

All welcome at U of I conference, "Planet U: The Human Story of Climate Change"

All welcome at U of I conference, "Planet U: The Human Story of Climate Change"

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One of the most curious aspects of the contemporary climate change story is the disconnect between scientific understanding and public perception. More than 98 percent of climate scientists operate on the understanding that large-scale, human induced climate change is already underway, and that the diverse phenomena associated with it will intensify in the future absent significant action to curb production of greenhouse gases. Compare that to the population at large. Up to 45 percent of the public does not believe in human-induced climate change, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

In such a context, it is reasonable to think that the way forward lies somewhere outside the simple repetition of scientific data.

That’s the thinking that has shaped a conference regarding climate change to be held on the U of I campus next week. Hosted cooperatively by the Environmental Council, the Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Change Institute, it is titled “Planet U: The Human Story of Climate Change.”

The Planet U conference, which is free and open to members of the campus community and the general public alike, will not be without the kinds of dialogue that dominate most media coverage of climate change—scientific projections, policy debate, etc. But the goal of the conference is to situate that dialogue in a broader context, one that acknowledges the role played by climate in human life since civilization’s beginnings 10,000 years ago. In the words of conference organizers, Planet U “factors in the missing human dimension by examining the impacts of climate change on human society through time, with a view to better grasping the impacts of the current long-term warming and our means for adapting to its staggering demands.”

The conference will feature more activity than I can describe here, from a dance performance to a poster session where U of I students and researchers will present their work, but here are some highlights.

Keynote addresses will be given by Brian Fagan and Eugene Linden, both best-selling popular authors on climate change.

Panel talks by two U of I faculty members will address the ways climate has disrupted particular civilizations in the past. Professor of anthropology Lisa Lucero will talk about the lessons to be drawn from the role of climate change in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Professor of English Gillen Wood will discuss his current project, a historical study of the ecological and social impacts of the rapid climate change that resulted from the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history.

A lively session on climate change and the media will feature three internationally recognized journalists: Michael Hawthorne, environment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Andrew Revkin, New York Times reporter and author of the blog Dot Earth, and Dan Vergano, science reporter for USA Today.

The ethical aspects of how people understand and respond to climate change will be the subject of a talk by Calvin DeWitt, who is both a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and a leader in the movement among American evangelicals to integrate faith and environmentalism.

Planet U will take place on the University of Illinois campus beginning next Wednesday, April 8th, and continuing through Friday, April 10th. There is no need to register for the conference and there are no fees to attend. Members of the public and the campus community are encouraged to come to some or all of the conference as they are able. A full schedule and further details are available at

I hope to see you there.