Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grand Prairie Friends works to protect precious woodland

Grand Prairie Friends works to protect precious woodland

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If you’re familiar with Fox Ridge State Park south of Charleston, you know there’s more to east central Illinois than mile after mile of flatland. Thanks to the influence of the Embarras River, forested ridges and lush valleys provide the area with a distinctive natural character.

This character is maintained through a chain of protected lands, including the Woodyard Memorial Conservation Area at the edge of Charleston, Warbler Woods Nature Preserve a little further to the south, and Fox Ridge State Park itself.

During the past year, an opportunity has arisen for adding a beautiful link to the chain, and the board of the local conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends, has been actively pursuing it. The “link” in question is a 140-acre tract of land adjacent to Warbler Woods that’s up for sale.

Known, for now, by the name of the current owner, the Dolan Woods tract is almost completely forested. On the ridges, where the soil tends to be dry, a mix of towering white oak trees forms a loose canopy, which allows some sunlight to reach the floor below. There, native shrubs, such as serviceberry, provide structure and food for wildlife.

In the ravines, where moisture is more abundant, red oaks and sugar maples dominate. Beneath them grow plants adapted to dampness and low light, a luxuriant blanket of ferns and wildflowers.

Scientific surveys of Dolan Woods have identified some real treasures among the plants there, including the relatively well-known yellow lady’s slipper orchid, along with two less common types of orchids as well. [Photos: Coles County naturalist David Mott (right) leads Jamie Ellis and other GPF board members on a tour of Dolan Woods this past June (Fred Delcomyn); yellow lady's slipper orchid (Michael R. Jeffords); worm-eating warbler (Greg Lambeth/].

Better still, according to Jamie Ellis, who is a botanist and also board president for Grand Prairie Friends, further discoveries are very likely. He told me, “The plant list already includes more than 100 species, many of which are typical of high-quality woods—but it’s certainly not complete. We’re still adding species each time we take a walk there.”

Thanks to the diverse, intact habitat, a variety of wildlife thrives at Dolan Woods. The site is presumed to host the same birds as the adjoining Warbler Woods, where breeding bird surveys have identified 57 species, eleven of which are considered “species in greatest need of conservation” by the Illinois State Wildlife Action Plan. These are birds that rely on large blocks of forest to reproduce, and they include some that are familiar, such as the redheaded woodpecker, as well as others that are less common, like the worm-eating warbler.

Dolan Woods also offers ideal habitat for the mammals, frogs, salamanders and other animals typical of Illinois forests.

Since June, members of the Grand Prairie Friends board have been working to secure grants from major Illinois foundations to cover the lion's share of the cost for Dolan Woods. (NEWS FLASH: Approval for one of the two key grants came in just as I was submitting this column.) But they are also committed to raising a significant amount for the purchase—$50,000—in contributions from members and friends by the end of the year.

If you are interested and able to help, there are two easy ways to donate money. You can send a check made out to Grand Prairie Friends to P. O. Box 36, Urbana, IL 61803. Or click you can go to the Grand Prairie Friends Website at and click on the “Donate Now” button. To my way of thinking, this is an exciting opportunity to help protect a real gem in east central Illinois.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

People wonder, what do crows think?

People wonder, what do crows think?

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At about this point in the fall a few years back, I noticed a curious phenomenon as I drove along Florida Avenue on the U of I campus. Dozens of crows—a “murder” if you will—were returning day after day to a row of majestic trees, for what looked to me like a great big crow party.

This wasn’t a roost, where crows gather at night for safety in numbers (and create misery for the unfortunate humans who live below.) It was a raucous, daytime affair, with lots of loud calling and hopping and flapping from branch to branch. [Photos by author: Row of pecan trees stretching south from Florida Avenue toward the round barn on St. Mary's Road; crow with pecan.]

What was the attraction of those trees? I stopped one morning to investigate. On the ground below the crow party were scattered the husks and shells of pecans, a nut I didn’t even know grew in Illinois.

So that little mystery was solved, and now I watch each November for the crows to congregate and feast on the pecans as they mature. (As a bonus, I now also know of a place where I can pick up one of my favorite foods from the ground.)

As I had spent time figuring out what crows were up to, I had inadvertently joined what turns out to be a very large and cosmopolitan group—people who are curious about crows.

If you’ve seen the episode of the PBS series, “Nature,” called “A Murder of Crows,” you know that scientific research on crows is illuminating new aspects of their intelligence and sociability on an ongoing basis.

For example, one group featured in the show, from the University of Washington at Seattle, designed a study to ascertain whether adult crows pass along specific knowledge about the world to their offspring.

The scientists knew from earlier work that crows recognize and remember masks worn by researchers who catch them, and that the crows’ dislike for people wearing those masks is communicated among adult birds. The question was whether such knowledge would be passed on from one generation to the next.

It was. A young crow that had learned from its parents to associate a particular mask with danger picked out a person wearing the same mask months later, in an entirely different setting, and gave the same alarm call.

Another area of research featured in “A Murder of Crows” is tool use among crows of New Caledonia, which appear to be the smartest of crows worldwide.

In the experiment, a New Caledonian crow is presented with a piece of food in a narrow box, which it can obtain only by reaching in with a long stick. But the long stick is inside a cage. To retrieve it, the crow has to reach in with a smaller stick, which is suspended from a nearby branch on a piece of string. In essence, it has to think up a three-step plan to achieve its goal.

You can almost hear the wheels turn as you watch the crow contemplate its options and then spring into action.

New Caledonian crows are also famous for the fact that they modify the tools available to them. In an earlier experiment, which you can view online, a New Caledonian crow named Betty crafts a hook from a straight piece of wire in order to pull food from an upright cylinder.

I don’t know whether the American crows we see in Illinois are as smart as all that. But having a better sense of what’s going on in their heads sure makes me want to watch them more closely in the future.