Dekker: Abundant wildlife in our backyard
By Julie Dekker Citizen Journalistfirstname.lastname@example.org February 28, 2013 1:32PM
A young Great Horned Owl newly out of his nest in Tinley Park. | Supplied photo
Updated: April 4, 2013 6:08AM
As an avid birdwatcher and nature lover in general, you can imagine my elation this week as I watched an eagle fly over our house. It was spectacular as it rode the wind, slowly heading west and so low that I could see its eyes as it scanned the ground.
If this were an isolated incident, it would be exciting enough, but lately eagle sightings are occurring frequently in our area. It’s a really good sign that the bald eagle is making a comeback. Due to the pesticide DDT, habitat destruction and poaching, bald eagles were pushed to the brink of extinction.
Forty years ago, bald eagles were exceedingly rare in the Midwest. DDT thins the shells of eagle eggs and they do not survive to hatch. After DDT was banned and gradually left the environment, the eagles slowly returned and are no longer on the endangered species list.
It has been 100 years since there has been a bald eagle’s nest in Cook County, so the pair that nested in a Palos Township forest preserve last year and had eaglets created quite a stir.
The county forest preserve district has more than 68,000 acres of small lakes, wetlands, grasslands and forest that serve more than 40 million visitors a year. It’s a sprawling environment that’s apparently sufficient to support bald eagles, who primarily feed on fish.
Bald eagles generally return to the same nesting site each year, so if we don’t destroy their habitat we may be able to watch the same eagles thrive again in the Palos area, hopefully for years to come.
The variety of natural environments surrounding us support much more than bald eagles. Hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish live in our nature preserves. We have healthy populations of other large raptors as well. Red-tailed, Harrier and Cooper’s hawks and kestrels are frequent fliers in our neighborhoods. Even the population of the majestic osprey seems to be growing over the last couple of years.
One of the most elusive species living in our woodlands is the owl. Many people don’t realize the amount and variety of owls in the Southland. I met with local owl expert Wannetta Elliott to get some facts.
Affectionately called the “owl lady,” Elliott has been studying owls in our area for 35 years. Along with her best buddy Logan, a Basset hound/Labrador mix, she hikes in the forest preserves every day. Over the years, Elliott has learned about the habitats and characteristics of each type of owl firsthand.
“Its one thing to see them,” she said, “but it’s so much better when you understand them.”
Year-round species in the Southland include the Great Horned, Barred and Screech owls. There are also Short-eared, Long-eared, Saw-whet and Barn owls that stay here during the winter on their migrations. The amount of owls in an area depends a lot on the food supply. Most owls eat a variety of mice, voles and birds.
The Great Horned, which is the largest of the owls here, can also eat bigger prey such as rabbits, ducks and geese. All of the owls are very elusive and difficult to find. Elliott has given many owl-sighting tours over the years, bringing bird lovers closer to these secretive creatures.
Finding owls is almost instinctive to Elliott. She has a keen sense of these birds and spends a great deal of time in their habitat, learning by observing. The “Owl Lady” never stops searching out the owls.
She recently returned from Duluth, Minn., which is experiencing an “eruption” of Boreal owls. An eruption is when a larger-than-normal amount of a species shows up in an area.
Great Gray owls, which are the largest species of owl, have also shown up in Duluth. Both types have come down from Canada, most likely for food. Elliott was excited to have seen her first Boreal owl in the wild.
By preserving our natural areas, we can ensure that our native species thrive for many generations to come. With care and vigilance, we should never push an animal to the brink of extinction again.