The real Thanksgiving turkey

There is a lot of turkey talk in my house lately—from handprint turkey crafts to gobbling impersonations and heated discussions of who gets the wishbone this year. Come November, most of us think of turkeys as the centerpiece of a delicious feast. You might be surprised to learn that this symbol of our American heritage is not only found on platters but also resides in Lake County, Illinois woodlands; and their gobbling is growing!

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The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is the most abundant of five turkey subspecies found in the United States and can be found throughout the eastern half of the country. These birds were abundant in our area long ago, but due to habitat loss and hunting they were extirpated from Illinois by 1910. Shortly after the wild populations were lost, efforts to release farm-raised turkeys began. However, released birds were never able to reproduce in the wild. In the late 1950s, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources began reintroducing wild turkeys in the southern part of the state and their populations boomed.

Today, thanks to habitat protection and regulated hunting, wildlife biologists estimate that eastern wild turkeys can be found in every county of Illinois with a total population of about 150,000 turkeys statewide. State researchers have learned that turkeys can adapt to smaller plots of land than was originally believed. This might be one reason why they are appearing more frequently in suburban areas, like this guy who has been pecking around the Lindenhurst area in recent weeks:

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While they can be spotted along roadways, wild turkeys require mature upland woods with fields and clearings. Using their strong feet, turkeys scratch through leaf litter in search of acorns, hickory nuts, berries and the occasional invertebrate. Turkeys swallow nuts whole, crushing the shells in their powerful gizzards (the part of the turkey my mother always threatened to put in the gravy).

In the winter, wild turkeys form large flocks. As the sun goes down, they fly up, branch by branch to roost together in the nut-bearing trees that provide the bulk of their diet. If threatened by coyotes, raccoons or great horned owls, male turkeys (a.k.a. toms or gobblers) run away at rates up to 12 mph, while females (or hens) evade predators by flying away at an amazing speed—up to 50 mph.

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The gobbling and strutting displays we associate with turkeys don’t begin until early spring, but winter is a great time to see flocks of turkeys silhouetted in the trees. Visit a Lake County Forest Preserve near the Wisconsin border, such as Gander Mountain or Van Patten Woods, for your best bet at seeing wild turkeys in action. Start a new family tradition and join our educators for the annual Thanksgiving for Nature Scavenger Hunt at Hastings Lake, where groups follow fun outdoor clues followed by a warm drink near a crackling fire.

This year, as I sit down to dinner with my family, I will be thankful for the farm-raised turkey on my plate and the eastern wild turkeys in our woodlands.

Poison ivy primer

With Halloween fast approaching, much attention is given to animals that are considered “scary.” Foreboding ravens, ominous bats, super-sized spiders and snakes are everywhere. Thankfully, many people know the benefits of these critters. However, it seems there is one thing found in nature, surprisingly flora not fauna, that remains misunderstood and maligned: poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). The chemical urushiol in the sap of poison ivy can cause an allergic reaction in many people that results in an itchy rash. However, wildlife is not sensitive to the plant in the same way. In fact, poison ivy is an important native plant in Illinois with a host of benefits for our natural areas—from food and shelter for birds, mammals, and insects to erosion control on shorelines.

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While just the thought may make your throat itch, many animals happily munch away on poison ivy with no ill effects. Deer browse the fruit and foliage. Cottontail rabbits nibble on the twigs and bark. Bees and wasps visit the flowers regularly, gathering much-needed pollen and nectar.

deereatspiDozens of bird species eat the round, white, waxy berries that develop in summer and persist through winter. Poison ivy berries provide important sustenance in the fall for yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) and other migrating songbirds. These tiny fruits also provide a winter bounty for local avian residents, including red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), a species of concern that is being spotted more regularly in the Lake County Forest Preserves of northern Illinois. Northern cardinals and American goldfinches have been known to weave the thread like hairs of poison ivy vines into their nests.

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Some insects even call poison ivy home. Dimorphic Macalla moth larvae (Epipaschia superatalis) spin a silken haven on poison ivy leaves for protection during metamorphosis, hence its nickname: the “poison ivy caterpillar.”

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As long as you look and don’t touch, poison ivy adds beauty to the autumnal landscape, turning crimson as the season progresses. Take our Hike Lake County Challenge and enjoy the last days of fall color, searching (from a distance) for this widespread and beneficial native plant.

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Acorn abodes

Post by Jen B

My family went on a bike ride last weekend at Ray Lake Forest Preserve. All afternoon, rain sputtered on and off as the clouds played tag with the sun. After climbing up a steep hill, the sky darkened again and we sought refuge under a canopy of large oak trees. One of my sons yelped,”Ouch! That raindrop hurt!” We quickly realized it wasn’t a raindrop, but a storm of acorns jiggled loose by the wind, plopping down on us. The trail became littered with acorns, and the kids began grabbing them. Upon inspection, the boys noticed tiny round holes in many of the acorns—evidence that these nuts were homes to acorn weevils (Curculio spp).

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Final songs of summer

Post by Jen B

As summer winds down, a telltale hum that signals the changing seasons begins to ramp up in the fields and forests. These trills and chirps are the mating calls of tree crickets (Oecanthinae)—a group of fascinating insects that are often heard but seldom known or seen. Their small size and mint green color helps camouflage them amidst the verdant grasses, shrubs and trees of late summer.

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Ghost of the prairie

Post by Jen B

Many years ago, while hiking through a prairie at dusk, I saw a stalk of delicate white flowers. They seemed to rise and hover above the surrounding plants like a group of little dancing ghosts. This was the first and last time I ever saw an eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). Due to its dwindling numbers and hidden habitats, this rare plant has reached almost mythical status—a holy grail of sorts in the Midwest. We’re thrilled that this endangered native orchid seems to be gaining a foothold in the Lake County Forest Preserves, which are home to some of the largest remaining populations. Just this month, one of our restoration ecologists discovered an orchid in bloom (photo below). It was found at one of the preserves known to provide habitat for this species but is the first documentation of a population at the site.

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A beautiful invasion

Post by Kelsey Roehrich

I am a student at Iowa State University, and traditions are an important part of school life. One long-standing tradition centers around two swans, Lancelot and Elaine, which float on a small campus lake. Legend has it, walk around the lake three times with your significant other and you will be together forever, since it is said that swan pairs mate for life.

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Spring songs

In May the natural world of Lake County, Illinois clamors for attention. Frogs peep, toads trill, insects buzz and chirp, but the all-stars of the show are birds. Perching songbirds, referred to scientifically as oscine passerines, are known for their amazing and extremely varied sounds. For many small and secretive species, their calls and songs are often the only way to identify individual birds within the chorus.

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Shorter, non-musical bird calls are heard year-round. Calls are used in social interactions and as alarms. They are considered innate. However, scientists have determined that birds’ longer, melodic songs are learned in the first year of life. Birds use these spring songs, some containing several melodies, primarily in establishing territory and breeding. Continue reading

Wood frogs found!

Discovery is often about being in the right place at the right time. This is exactly what happened recently when a wildlife biologist for the Lake County Forest Preserves was in the right woodland on the right spring day. While monitoring wildlife, a biologist heard sounds from the elusive wood frog (Rana sylvatica). The duck-like breeding calls made by male wood frogs had not been heard in Lake County, Illinois since the late 1980s. This discovery is the first sign of victory following extensive habitat restoration and recent species reintroduction efforts.

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Crane chronicles

I am part of a volunteer group for the Annual Midwest Crane Count, monitoring the wetlands and fields in Lake County, Illinois each year for sandhill cranes. In the pre-dawn hours, our eyes scan for any hint of movement. Our ears listen for a bugling sound. Our mission: Determine the abundance and distribution of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) in the Upper-Midwest United States.

The arrival of these large elegant birds in Lake County is a harbinger of spring. More migrate through this region every year, and an increasing number are deciding to nest here as well. We know this thanks to the early-rising volunteers who help with the Annual Midwest Crane Count held each spring. This year, some of the first sandhill cranes returning to Lake County, Illinois were spotted in mid-March at Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve. Continue reading

Surviving in the subnivean

This winter has been harsh in Lake County, Illinois, causing many of us to wish we could migrate to South America like some birds do, or hibernate in a cozy underground den like the groundhog.  Alas, most of us just stick it out in the cold. It may offer consolation to know we are not the only animals active during these record-breaking cold, snowy days. It turns out there is a whole ecosystem teeming with life right under the snow.

Recently, scientists having been taking a closer look at life in the subnivean, which literally translates to “a place under the snow.” The space between the snow and the ground acts as a seasonal refuge for invertebrates, birds, and small mammals. Snow affords these small critters with remarkable insulation, and temperatures around 32 F regardless of the temperature above the snow. Biologist Bernd Heinrich explains the science underlying these insulating properties in the book Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. “As long as both ice and water exist side by side, they constitute a thermostat keeping temperatures constant.” When water converts to ice crystals, heat releases. When ice turns into water, the process uses up heat.

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