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: All for one and one for all! Fueled by their namesake food, honey bees work communally to maintain the internal temperature of their winter cluster at or near 96oF.
January 12, 2018
Boy, talk about a honey of a deal.
At a time when most insects are whiling away the hours in some sort of inactive state, as an egg, larva, pupa or adult, as well as a time when many bugs have checked out completely, our local honey bees are alive and well, and living in climate-controlled comfort.
OK, maybe the term “comfort” is pushing things a little. These social insects are working their [honey] buns off. But it’s all for a good cause: They’re keeping their queen – the reproductive bee that ensures the colony’s future – at summer-like temperatures as warm as 95 F.
That’s right, even when the thermometer dips below freezing honeybees in the center of a hive are warm and toasty. When the mercury drops below zero, as it’s done on and off these past few weeks, that center area will still be be balmy, bordering on hot. Probably a little sticky, too.
How do they do it? Sure, honeybees’ bodies are fuzzy, but they lack the luxurious fur coats our mammals grow. They don’t put on extra layers of fat, nor do they grow downy feathers.
The secret to this amazing feat lies in the bees’ ability to generate heat … by shivering.
Like it or not, shivering is a great way to warm up. As humans, we tend to reach for another sweater or blanket the first instant we feel a chill. But animals don’t have that option.
In bees, the shiver is produced in the flight muscles. The muscles that move wings up and the muscles that move wings down contract at the same time. The results are wings that don’t move at all, because the movements cancel each other out, and heat, produced as a byproduct of that exertion, as energy is metabolized.
So how do the bees fuel this internal fire? With honey, of course. A decent-sized colony of bees with, let’s say, a few tens of thousands of individuals, can produce around 200 pounds of honey over spring, summer and fall. Just as we store up firewood to be burned for warmth, the honeybees store up honey to be eaten, then turned into heat.
Even though 200 pounds is a lot of honey (shoot, it took me almost six months to go through a 2 lb. jar) the bees nonetheless tap into it prudently. Instead of immediately turning on the shiver, a response that requires lots of fuel to maintain, they first will form a tight cluster, effectively sealing in the queen and insulating her from the cold.
Bees on the outer edges of the cluster, known as mantle bees, will feel the cold and start shivering first. But when the outside temperatures really drop, even bees deep inside the cluster will shiver to keep the cold at bay.
Having the right home doesn’t hurt either. Our wild honeybees are cavity dwellers. (Note I didn’t say native honeybees – although they’ve lived here for a couple hundred years, honeybees are still considered nonnative, having arrived in North America aboard the first ships packed with European settlers.)
Ideally, like the bees in Winnie the Pooh’s honey tree in Hundred Acre Woods, they’ll hole up in a hollow tree, where layers of wood and bark provide protection from the elements. But sometimes they’ll opt for more unconventional locales, like the space between the walls in a house. Or, once, the gap behind the sign on the Target store in Batavia.
Over the years we’ve found several bee trees in the Hickory Knolls Natural Area. We’ll be keeping an eye on them this winter, and I hope you will too. Tune in next week to learn how!
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, Good Natured, winter
Photo Caption: A dark-eyed junco at Hickory Knolls braves the elements with its feathers fluffed out, a tactic that helps improve insulation from the cold.
Birds in Winter
January 5, 2018
This latest weather blast has me thinking of winters gone by, particularly those of my childhood. Back then, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school unless it was winter and you lived a mile or more away from the school.
Since we lived just across the street, I spent many a day envying my friends who got to walk a mile or more in the cold, while also wondering if the exposed skin between the bottom of my little pleated skirt and the top of my knee socks would get frostbite. (And, if it did, would everyone want to see? Would my knees be famous? Would I be elevated to the status of tragic playground legend, just like the kid that supposedly fell off the fire escape and landed on the bike rack, which is why it was dented?)
My point is, exposed skin in sub-zero cold is an unpleasant but undeniable fact of winter life here in northern Illinois. We humans have our ways of coping (using our vivid imaginations, for instance) and our wildlife neighbors have theirs.
Take birds, for instance. They have exposed knees too, but even in the worst weather are usually only a little worse for wear. A magnificent set of physiological adaptations protect birds from extreme conditions in winter, and throughout the year.
Feathers are a great example. Birds are gifted with several different types of feathers, each of which performs its own function. Contour, or exterior, feathers, function like the shell of a winter parka, shielding the bird from elements like wind and rain or snow. Semiplumes help contour feathers keep their shape, and filoplumes perform a sensory function that helps birds with preening.
Then there are the down feathers. Humans know about the insulating qualities of down via our down-filled coats, but for birds down is the equivalent of long underwear. Situated between the contour feathers and the skin, down feathers trap warm air close to the body and insulate against the cold.
Birds are able to manipulate, or fluff, their down and contour feathers, thus allowing a measure of temperature control. When a bird looks “puffed up,” it’s fluffing. Fluffed feathers have nearly twice as much surface area, and insulate nearly twice as well.
Another amazing avian adaptation concerns those bare knees. Birds’ legs stay protected in winter, not with knee socks and pleated skirts, but rather through an internal innovation called counter-current circulation.
During this process, arteries that carry warm blood from the bird’s body into its legs divide into many smaller vessels, as do the veins that carry cooled blood from the legs back to the body. Heat passes between these smaller vessels, cooling the “outgoing” blood and warming the “incoming” blood, thus helping to minimize heat loss via legs and feet.
Birds further conserve heat loss by restricting blood flow to the legs, standing on just one leg, or perching so that their feathers cover their legs and feet. They take advantage of cover where they can, and aren’t opposed to huddling (or, for you romantics, cuddling) to keep the cold away.
Another tactic birds use, that we humans tend to shun, is to shiver. Shivering creates heat and, as long as the bird consumes sufficient calories to fuel its muscles, can be an effective strategy for surviving long cold winter nights.
The next time an arctic blast comes our way, take a look at your bird neighbors. If they’re out at all, you’ll notice that most are positioned so that they’re facing into, rather than away from, the wind. This strategy keeps the wind blowing over, rather than under, the contour feathers, and helps prevent cold air from reaching the skin.
And therein lies a winter coping strategy we all can use: When temperatures are low and the cold winds blow, try not to let the weather ruffle your feathers!
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, Good Natured
Photo Caption: The lobby of the City of St. Charles Public Works Department is one of several locations local residents can deposit their unwanted holiday lights and extension cords. Elgin Recycling will remove the copper and plastic, and donate the net proceeds from the resale to America In Bloom – St. Charles.
Holiday Lights Recycling
December 29, 2017
It’s about this time of year that the holiday lights, put up with enthusiasm just a few short weeks ago, begin to lose some of their pizzazz.
Maybe it’s the thought of taking them down, packing them back into their boxes or bags and then, despite extreme care, still managing to break some of those fragile bulbs or wires. Or maybe it’s because those bulbs and wires have reached the end of their useful life, blinking out for the very last time.
If you’re finding yourself left with strands of lights that don’t work, don’t despair. And even more important, don’t put them in the trash. They contain a considerable amount of copper and plastic that can be recycled.
Better still, those no-longer-twinkling lights can be used to help out a good cause-America In Bloom-St. Charles.
In case you’re not familiar with this group, let me fill you in. America in Bloom promotes nationwide beautification through education and community involvement by encouraging the use of plants and other environmental and lifestyle enhancements.
Name aside, the national America in Bloom program is about more than flowers. It focuses on ways to improve communities in several distinct areas: floral displays, landscaped areas, urban forestry, environmental efforts and heritage preservation.
Locally, America in Bloom – St. Charles seeks to continually increase involvement among residents, community organizations and businesses. The committee, of which I’m a member, aims to promote the culture of cooperation and involvement that exists in St. Charles, encouraging everyone to work together towards the common goal of improving our city.
To help defray some of the cost of these improvements, as well as reduce the amount of lights that end up in landfills, America in Bloom – St. Charles, Elgin Recycling and the City of St. Charles have teamed up to offer a holiday lights recycling program. St. Charles residents and businesses are welcome to drop off holiday lights (working or non-working) and electrical cords at convenient locations around town. Elgin Recycling will haul them away at no cost.
Items accepted for recycling include: traditional holiday lights; LED holiday lights; Italian mini holiday lights; rope lights; and extension cords.
Items not accepted are holiday light strings attached to garland, live greens, wreaths, Christmas trees, lawn decorations/ornaments or other non-recyclables, any of which would contaminate the process.
Collection bins are located inside the buildings listed below. Items dropped-off are to be placed only in designated bins. If a facility is closed, please do not leave items anywhere outside the building.
- Blue Goose Market, 300 S. 2nd Street, St. Charles, Monday-Sunday, 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
- St. Charles Public Works, 1405 S. 7th Avenue, St. Charles, Monday-Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deposit lights inside the street-level lobby. There is no drop off when the gates are closed.
- St. Charles Public Library, One South 6th Avenue. Drop off starts January 2, 2018. Monday-Thursday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Friday 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Sunday Noon to 5:00 p.m.
- St. Charles History Museum, 215 E Main Street, St. Charles, Tuesday-Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Note: The Museum will be closed to the public starting Tuesday January 9, reopening Friday February 2.
For more information, call City of St. Charles Public Works Department at 630-377-4405 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Elgin Recycling is providing the bins and will donate all net proceeds from recycling the items to the America in Bloom – St. Charles effort.
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.Good Natured, Recycling
Photo Caption: This male pileated woodpecker shows off his massive beak, which is used for excavating food as well as nest cavities from dead trees. (Photo credit: BryanHanson at MorgueFile.com)
Characteristics of Pileated Woodpeckers
December 22, 2017
Last week in this space we pondered the presence of the pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, here in Kane County. Only a few years ago such musing would be considered something akin to preposterous. After all, isn’t this a bird found only in the forests of the north, south, east and northwest?
It might be time to change the range maps.
Over the past few years reports of this large (crow-sized) woodpecker have started popping up in our area, namely in the eastern part of the county as well as in neighboring Dupage. Last week I asked for folks to send in their sightings. Good Natured reader Barb Evans wrote in to say she and her husband saw a pileated at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle last fall, along the Big Rock Trail, and last Sunday, along the Heritage Trail by the Big Rock Visitor Center.
My friends Julie and Valerie, both of whom live in the general Ferson Creek area in St. Charles, said there have been sporadic sightings dating back about three years. Julie added that the bird is one of the target species for this year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
Certainly the Arb, along with sites in and around LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, as well as where I came across the work of a pileated, at Fabyan East Forest Preserve in Geneva, are well worth closer examination. But before we all head out hell-bent on finding these big boys, and girls, it’s probably prudent to become a little more familiar with their appearance, habits and behaviors.
First and foremost is the birds’ large size. Often compared to the American crow, pileated woodpeckers measure 16 to 19 in. long and have a wingspan of up to 30 inches. The sexes are similar, both possessing a red crest, but the male’s extends all the way to the bill while the female’s forehead is grayish. Also, males and females-which are monogamous–both have a prominent black stripe across the white cheeks, but the male’s is tinged with red.
Perched on the side of a tree, the birds appear to be mostly black. But in flight, broad patches of bright white feathers on the wings are revealed. This feature, along with an undulating flight pattern, are a big help in distinguishing the birds from crows when you’re watching from a distance.
As with most birds, sound can also be a useful means of identification. Pileateds produce a range of wahs, wuks and woks that can sound like a loud chuckle-similar, but louder, than the sound of the northern flicker.
Pileated woodpeckers favor stands of large trees that contain a fair amount of dead wood. For it is within these branches and trunks that the bird’s favorite foods dwell. D. pileatus typically dine on carpenters ants supplemented by the larvae of various wood-boring beetles and, in season, caterpillars and other insects, and various nuts and berries.
The birds are listed as nonmigratory, meaning they are residents wherever they are found. This term, however, is a little misleading, as pileated do move around-especially in winter-as they search for food.
When breeding season comes, the male excavates a tree cavity over the course of three to six weeks. The female lays three to five eggs and the pair then shares in the incubation and raising of the young.
One thing that has always fascinated me about pileated woodpeckers, besides their incredible size and power, is their name. Dryocopus is taken from the Greek dryos, which means oak or tree, and koptos, which means cut or chopped. Indeed! The species name pileatus refers to the bird’s prominent crest.
But just as captivating are the bird’s many common names, most of them regional in nature. In the classic series Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds (21 volumes published between 1919 and 1968) author Arthur Cleveland Bent lists no fewer than 15 common names, including stump breaker and king-of-the-woods.
Then there’s the question of the pronunciation of the word pileated. I was in the Smoky Mountains when I first began to learn about this bird, and down there the accepted articulation is PIE-leated. Around here though most people go with PILL-leated. But since I like pie better than pills, I tend to favor the former over the latter.
Curious as to whether one version is considered “correct,” I consulted the web site of the Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, a vast storehouse of all things bird. There I found “Dr. Language Person’s Guide to Bird Name Pronunciations,” a humorous piece written by crow expert Kevin McGowan Ph. D. He says that both versions are acceptable and notes, “If it bothers you when people say it differently than you do, lighten up.”
The birds, after all, couldn’t care less.
Photo Caption: The crow-sized pileated woodpecker has been appearing in our area with increased frequency. If you’re not lucky enough to see the bird itself, you can still search for its distinctive excavations on dead trees or fallen logs in rich woodlands. (Photo credit: BryanHanson at MorgueFile.com)
Have you spotted a pileated woodpecker?
December 15, 2017
So there I was, walking through the easternmost woods of the Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva, when I came upon a curious sight: Fresh wood chips littering the ground beneath a dead tree.
But these chips, my friends, were not the delicate shreds dropped by a small woodpecker or chickadee excavating a winter shelter. No sirree. These chips actually were chunks-a LOT of ’em-scattered as though someone, or something, had gone at the tree with a hatchet.
The odd part was, the base of the tree was completely intact. Only after I looked up did I see from where the chips had fallen.
There, at a height just above my head, was a large, jagged but vaguely rectangular-shaped area where someone, or something, had whacked the heck out of the tree’s trunk.
The likelihood of a mad hatchet-er was considered, but only briefly. Not only did I not want to think that someone was running around the woods with a sharp implement, beating on defenseless trees, but I also found myself thinking the “hatchet job” looked somewhat familiar.
I’m 991/2% sure that it was the work of Dryocopus pileatus, the pileated woodpecker.
These birds, which for as long as I can remember have been considered rare in our area, have been popping up with increasing frequency over the last few years. After first encountering them in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula about 20 years ago, I started to familiarize myself with this large woodpecker and its fascinating habits.
About 15 years ago I was even lucky enough to come across a very unlucky pileated lying quite dead on a trail on Mount Adams in Washington state. Such a find let me study the structure of the bird’s amazingly strong bill, its barbed tongue, and its stiff tail-a trait that most woodpeckers possess, and use for support when pecking on trees.
It was about six or seven years ago that I saw my first Illinois pileated, at Starved Rock State Park in Utica. We initially came across the birds’ telltale excavations, then later caught two brief glimpses of the crow-sized birds flitting through the trees. About the same time I heard reports of pileated woodpeckers at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in DuPage County.
Then, this past spring, my friend Valerie had a pair of pileateds pop up in her oak wood lot in St. Charles. They stayed a few days but then moved on.
That, apparently, is what the Fabyan pileated did too. I looked for some time afterward, but did not find any other signs of its presence.
How about you? Have you seen any recent signs of pileated woodpecker activity? Look for, usually, rectangular-shaped holes on the lower part of a tree’s trunk. The cavities can range from a few to several inches deep, depending on how far the bird had to dig to reach its quarry-carpenter ants or perhaps other wood-dwelling insects.
If you find or are already aware of any signs, or actual pileateds, in the area, I’d love to hear about them. And be sure to tune in next week, when we explore more aspects of this remarkable bird’s life cycle and ecology.