Nestled at the edge of 130 acres of oak woodlands, wetlands and prairies, the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center offers a unique blend of rustic nature and contemporary comforts. The LEED-certified building features beautiful views and an open floor plan with rental and programming space. Live animal displays, including state-endangered Blanding’s turtles, offer vistiors up close interaction with reptiles native to Illinois. Nature programs for all ages, birthday parties and special events provide guests with many educational and social opportunities to connect to our local environment. Visit this premiere environmental discovery center in the Fox Valley today!
Photo Caption: It may be summer for us, but for birds it’s molting season. This blue jay feather is just one of many spotted on a recent walk around St. Charles.
Birds of a feather – it’s time to molt
August 18, 2017
In Ecclesiastes we learn that everything has a season. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep, a time to laugh, and a lot of other daily and/or annual events. A couple of millennia later, Pete Seeger and then the rock group The Byrds immortalized the words in the song Turn, Turn, Turn.
As a naturalist, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are lots of other Byrd, I mean bird, seasons not commemorated with lyrics. A time to nest, for example, and a time to raise young. A time to fledge, a time to preen. Then there’s the season we’re in right now – the time to molt, or replace old worn – out feathers with new ones.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed lately, but there are feathers everywhere, and not just because a Cooper’s hawk recently feasted. The other day I was walk along the Fox River and noticed dozens of duck and goose feathers, on land and on the water. In fact, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve also come across a feather from a downy woodpecker, from a mourning dove, a cardinal and a blue jay.
Feathers not only define what birds are – they are the only animals that have them – but they are essential to bird survival. Well-groomed outer, or contour, feathers provide protection from rain and snow while inner down insulates against heat and cold. Without feathers, a bird’s goose would be cooked.
But, let’s face it, feathers don’t last forever. At some point they need to be replaced, either one at a time, like most of our perching birds, or in large clumps, like waterfowl.
Most birds molt at least once and sometimes twice a year, depending on habitat and the amount of wear and tear the feathers sustain. Also, depending on species, late winter/early spring molts may produce the bright breeding plumage we so often associate with the coming of warmer weather.
A molt typically proceeds sequentially in sections across the bird’s body. But it’s neat to see that even this process has adaptations depending on a species’ needs. Take woodpeckers for example. They have a pair of long, stiff feathers at the inside center of their tail. These feathers help the bird brace itself against trees as it pounds away foraging or creating a cavity. If they were to fall out first, the bird would lack the support it needs for these vital activities. Instead, woodpeckers retain these feathers until all the other tail feathers have been replaced, which is opposite of the sequence displayed by most other birds.
In a marked exception to the one-section-at-a-time approach to molting, we have the waterfowl-ducks, geese, swans, pelicans etc. These guys face a bit of a conundrum when it comes to losing feathers. Being heavy bodied, the loss of even a few wing feathers renders them flightless.
So these guys have adapted to a process known as synchronous molting. Feathers come out, not all at once – no bird wants to be completely naked, even in the midst of summer’s heat – but rapidly and throughout the body. During this period they can’t fly, and tend to stick close to water, their safe haven.
Whereas “typical” molts typically take six to eight weeks to complete, synchronous molters can get the job done in as little as two weeks.
Whether it happens quickly or over the course of a couple of months, once the molt is complete it’s time for birds to return to their feather-maintenance regimen. These tasks include daily preening, which may involve the use of oil glands or, in some species, powder down feathers that crumble into a grooming “dust;” bathing, even in winter; and, sometimes, working items like black walnuts or ants through the feathers as a means of pest control.
As The Byrds sang, there’s a time to gain and a time to lose. When it comes to bird feathers, that time is now.
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or email@example.com.Bird, Environment, Good Natured
Photo Caption: Although usually spotted on the ground, chipmunks are adept climbers. Their name is derived from a Native American word meaning “climbs down trees head first.” (Photo credit: Tom Tetzner/USFWS)
August 11, 2017
Even though the corn and soybeans are still green in the field, some local harvests have already begun. Need proof? Just check out the chipmunks.
For some time now these industrious rodents have been taking advantage of the season’s bounty of ripe fruits and seeds. But then again, they take advantage of the bounty of three out of our four seasons. It’s what they’re built to do.
Equipped with two fur-lined cheek pouches-the chipmunk equivalent of shopping baskets-these little guys gather goodies like there’s no tomorrow. Black cherry seeds, maple seeds and tiny pine nuts are current favorites. And those of you with birdfeeders can probably attest to chipmunks’ love of sunflower seeds; chippies slurp up these oil-rich delicacies with vacuum cleaner-like efficiency.
Speed is important for chipmunks, since they must try to eat without being eaten. Small but meaty, they rank high on the menus of many local predators, including hawks and cats. Even so, a chip will pause during its gathering to nip the points off of seeds it deems too sharp, in order to protect the inside of the pouches. (FYI, I do something similar with pointy tortilla chips. Why risk a painful cut if a little prevention is all it takes?)
Although chipmunks may eat some food items on site-especially wet or juicy morsels-many more are transported back to the home burrow inside the animal’s cheek pouches. Once safely underground, the chipmunk empties its pouches in one of the burrow’s various “pantry” chambers. Some food items may be eaten immediately, some are saved for rainy days, and the rest are kept for the winter that is sure to come.
So well known is this hoarding instinct that it is reflected in our Eastern chipmunk’s scientific name. The genus name Tamias is from the Greek for “treasurer or storer.” In fact, pioneers and Native Americans used to dig up chipmunk burrows to gain access to the rich larder below.
Unlike some of those folks you see on A&E TV or Lifetime, chipmunks don’t hoard just for hoarding’s sake. No, for chipmunks, hoarding is the key to winter survival.
Unlike their cousins the woodchucks (a.k.a. groundhogs), who put on prodigious amounts of fat in fall and then hibernate through the winter, chipmunks pass the cold-weather months in varying states of torpor. They sleep a while, wake up, eat, make a trip to the restroom chamber, then curl up and snooze some more.
Woe to the chipmunk whose winter stores are inadequate. Foraging in winter is risky business for these small rodents, since they lack the warm coats and extra fat that their other relatives the gray and fox squirrels grow. Nonetheless, a warm winter day may coax a chipmunk to come up above ground for a brief time, perhaps for a stretch and a drink; then it’s back down below to await the coming of spring.
Although chipmunks are noted for their food-storing habits, their underground burrows are quite remarkable too. Ranging up to 30 feet in length, these subterranean hideaways typically start off as a tunnel that goes straight down for a distance of about six inches, then turns off at an angle and slopes downward to a depth of three feet or more.
The burrow usually has one “front door,” with several “emergency exits” in case a predator comes calling. The main entrance measures about 1 1/2 to 2 inches across and, while conspicuous in the way that 2-inch holes can be, it is inconspicuous in that it lacks a pile of dirt next to it. Chipmunks always take care to distribute the dirt they excavate so as to not call attention to their humble abode.
A complex burrow system, instinct-driven hoarding behavior, and built-in cheek pouches. What more could you ask for in a rodent? Next time you’re out and about, be sure to take some time to check out the chipmunks.
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.Environment, Good Natured, Mammal
Photo Caption: Polyphemus moths are locally common in our area but rarely seen due to their nocturnal nature. Good Natured reader Lorayne Hrejsa recently captured this pair (Yes! There are two, if you look closely) exchanging greetings in her yard.
August 4, 2017
In the world of lepidopterans – the “scaly wings,” or butterflies and moths – one group seems to dominate in terms of public awareness.
When was the last time you heard about the plight of butterflies, specifically monarchs? Five minutes ago? Me too.
This iconic animal has been grabbing headlines for over a few years now, ever since conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list the monarch as a federally endangered species. (Policy note: USFWS has until June 2019 to decide whether these butterflies will receive federal protection.)
Their plight has a number of causes, ranging from deforestation and unfavorable weather in Mexico, the migratory species’ wintering grounds, to a lack of suitable habitat in the United States. But because of the monarch’s widespread recognition, citizen science groups have rallied to its rescue. The jury is still out on current population numbers, but I can think of at least 10 people I know who are raising monarch caterpillars for release back into the wild.
Thanks to the monarch, the public’s attention has been directed to butterflies in general. The sulphurs. The swallowtails. The checkerspots. Their likenesses often appear on signs supporting pollination and other such conservation causes.
When, though, was the last time you heard of such support for the other, and much larger part of the lepidopteran order, the moths?
Yes, moths. Despite the fact that about 90% of lepidopteran species are moths, enough for them to earn their own annual celebration (National Moth Week which, not so coincidentally, was last week, July 22-30) they still remain, at best, underappreciated, and at worst despised.
Even my mom, a woman who, over the years, has come to recognize that even little bits of nature are to be admired and not squished with a tissue, still crinkles her nose when I mention moths. She thinks of them as the little creatures that lay eggs in her birdseed and chew holes in her woolens. But, really, moths are so much more.
Moth caterpillars are important food sources for many bird species. Moth adults are widely consumed by bats. (Here’s something to, um, chew on… You may have heard that bats eat mosquitoes, and while that’s true, a bat would much rather munch on a meaty moth than a minuscule mosquito.)
Moths are also crucial – here’s that word again – pollinators for a large number of plant species. The thing is, moths are active at night. And not just right after dusk, but long after midnight, times when it’s not only hard to see them, but also when most of us are asleep.
And, if we are out and about late at night, what do we do? We turn on lights. Let’s face it, we can’t see without them. But doing so puts moths in a bit of a bind.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “like a moth to a flame.” Moths are, indeed, drawn to light sources. While this tendency makes for easy sightings for us, and easy pickings for bats, the presence of bright lights at night disrupts a number of physiological processes inside the moths.
Many moths can hear the sounds of bats echolocating and, in the dark, will drop away from the bats to avoid detection. Lights, for some reason, interrupt this response, and the moths get gobbled up. Good for the bats, but bad for the bugs.
Artificial lighting also creates havoc with female moths’ pheromone production, which makes it challenging for the males to find them. However if two moths do find each other, and they produce a family, the little guys may stay that way-undersized-as human-sourced lights can also inhibit caterpillar growth.
With more than 160,000 species worldwide-11,000 species in the U.S. alone-moths clearly have a lot going for them. But surrounded by threats like habitat loss, pesticide use and light pollution, they also have a lot working against them. Perhaps this brief look at moths has caused a lightbulb to go on-in your head, where it won’t distract them-and you can look at this undervalued group of species in a new…light.
Pam Erickson Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or email@example.com.Environment, Good Natured, Insect, pollinators
Photo Caption: Double-crested cormorants sit low in the water, a trait that helps distinguish them from other waterfowl. The species has seen a number of ups and downs and previously was listed as endangered in Illinois, but today enjoys healthy population numbers. (Photo credit: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS)
Double-Crested Cormorants, Part 2
July 28, 2017
Last week when we looked at double-crested cormorants, we were lucky enough to have a TV show theme song that described this familiar, fish-eating species almost to a T: (da-da-da dum, snap-snap) Creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky…
This week though, as we continue our exploration, the descriptors don’t flow quite as lyrically. But they do tell a remarkable story: Persecuted. Afflicted. Nearly Extinct. Protected. Recovered. Abundant. Controversial.
If we were to step back in time a hundred years or so, we’d find that double-crested cormorants, or DCCOs, were common in Illinois during spring and fall migrations but otherwise maintained a low profile. A few pairs nested along the Illinois River although, seemingly, no one was happy about it. Regarded as threats to fishermen’s livelihoods, they dubbed the birds an uncomplimentary and unprintable nickname and summarily trapped, poisoned and shot as many as they could find.
As the 20th Century progressed, so did humans’ impact on the environment-and on DCCOs. The use of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and other pesticides compounded in the food chain and resulted in a reduction in nesting success-not just for cormorants, but other birds too, most notably the bald eagle.
Concurrently, water quality was on the skids. Uncurbed pollution drove fish populations down and made suitable habitat hard to find. DCCOs’ scant numbers plummeted even further, to the point where in 1960 they were added to the Illinois Endangered Species list.
The future looked grim for this enigmatic bird. But then, slowly, things began to change.
The protection afforded by the Endangered status, along with North American bans on DDT and various other chemicals, as well as the passage of the Clean Water Act, helped DCCOs begin their recovery. Wildlife management teams lent a hand too, constructing artificial nesting platforms in known breeding areas along the Mississippi. From 12 nests in two trees in Carroll County in 1974, the birds’ Illinois breeding population grew to 16 nests in 1978 and more than 110 in 1984.
In our area, similar increases were noted. According to Kane County Audubon’s Spring Bird Count data, no cormorants were noted from 1972, the year Kane County spring counts began, until 1986, when three birds were sighted. Three more were spotted during the 1989 spring count, and the birds have been seen in every year since. Birders counted 94 DCCOs in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.
There’s no doubt, the cormorant population has turned a corner. You’d think that would mean that all is well, and our story could end with a “And they all lived happily ever after.”
It could, were it not for the fact that DCCOs still face some significant challenges. Those same ghosts that haunted them before, in the form of allegations that they harm fish populations, still swirl in the air each time their name is mentioned. Perhaps not so much locally, but certainly any place where sport fishing, commercial fishing and/or fish farming figure into local economies.
One common claim, that DCCOs have decimated the Great Lakes’ yellow perch population, has been studied extensively. For example, a three-year study of coromorants’ impact on fish populations in Green Bay found that the birds did feed heavily on perch in early summer. But then, as water temperatures warmed and the fish moved to deeper parts of the lake, DCCO diets shifted to other species including gizzard shad and the invasive round goby.
Other studies have documented that the birds focus their foraging in shallower areas and consume nongame species like sticklebacks and sculpin. Still other research has shown perch’s vulnerability to mercury and other contaminants, as well as competition from introduced species. It would appear the finger of blame for perch problems cannot be pointed solely at cormorants.
Another area of concern to wildlife biologists is the DCCO’s effects on habitat.
A gregarious species, cormorants will congregate in large numbers whenever they find conditions to their liking. Given their substantial size, along with their equally substantial, shall we say, “output,” cormorants can create quite a negative impact on vegetation below nests and roosts. Their acidic feces kill the trees and herbaceous plants, in effect ruining the habitat for everyone but themselves.
Throughout the DCCO’s range, states have enacted various measures of control, including oiling eggs to prevent hatching and shooting birds deemed nuisances. In 2013, a combined total of 21,312 DCCOs were shot in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service statistics. And in 2014, in South Carolina, hunters shot 11,653 of the birds during a special DCCO season that ran from February 2nd to March 1st.
Simply put, that’s a lot of cormorants.
Were the hunts necessary? It depends on who you ask. So many factors and so many opinions from so many interest groups weigh in to the decision that the entire issue turns murky. Which is probably why the USFWS in 2006 decided to hand over much of the responsibility for cormorant control measures to selected state and local agencies.
For an absorbing, and well-balanced, look at the topic of DCCOs and their impacts, both positive and negative, you might want to check out the book The Double-Crested Cormorant: Symbol of Ecological Conflict. Edited by outdoor writer Dennis Wild, the book provides a thorough examination of the bird’s natural history, its poor public image, and what the future may hold for this perplexing species.
Perhaps instead of, or in addition to, reading, you’d like to head out and observe some local cormorants. You usually can find them foraging at several select sites along the Fox River, typically near dams, as well as many local ponds, including Fermilab’s Lake Law and A.E. Sea.
At least so far, no one around here is shooting cormorants or oiling their eggs. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a chance to live happily ever after.