Whitetail Deer Dossier

by Carl Strang

It’s time to start sharing some of my larger files of notes from personal observations of our vertebrate wildlife. This week’s feature is our local hoofed critter. The preliminary notes, written in the mid-80’s, are more extensive than usual. The dated notes that follow provide many illustrations of the value of tracking in behavior studies.

Deer, Whitetail

Buck in a bed

Buck in a bed

Deer can be seen in a variety of habitats. Their home range always includes some woodland, brush and meadow or marsh areas. They travel on well used trails, occasionally wandering off them to feed. Commonly they enter meadows to feed at dusk. In winter, they feed on browse. In northern Illinois they hit Rosaceae (blackberries, roses, etc.) early in winter, then eat a variety of woody plants, then by mid-February are eating poison ivy almost exclusively. Cottontails follow the same sequence of foods, but deer-browsed twigs usually are bitten off higher and have a torn edge from the deer’s lack of upper incisors. Through January (though mainly in October and November), bucks attack certain shrubs and saplings along trails, breaking twigs and usually also eating a couple (antler rubs). At Herrick Lake Forest Preserve I noticed that pioneer bur oaks in fields were especially exposed to this abuse.

Shrubs missing bark after being rubbed by a buck’s antlers

Shrubs missing bark after being rubbed by a buck’s antlers

Does in spring have fawns which at first remain quietly curled up on ground, freezing when approached. If they do wander, they will call for mother with a sheep-like bleating sound. As their size and strength improve they begin to travel with mother, although on occasion they will drop into a frozen curled position when a threat is detected. Spots can remain into late summer.

Deer flushed close have tail-lifting display, spreading the white hairs underneath (on small fawns the display is disproportionately large). At a distance, when at least partly in cover, they give a high-pitched, whistling snort, often accompanied by a stomping of the feet.

Bony antlers grow slowly through summer, covered with velvety skin. In late fall they dry, the skin comes off. By spring the antlers have been shed.

Tracks usually are 2-toed hoof marks. Leaping deer or those in deep soft substrates also will make 2 smaller dewclaw prints. In deep snow, the tips of the nails often make drag marks. I have seen deer leap over 6-foot fences, and tracks have shown horizontal jumps of more than 12 feet.

In May, deer on Reineman Sanctuary (PA) fed on fiddleheads of hay-scented ferns, but didn’t touch them after they unfolded. Among summer foods were leaves and twigs of greenbrier.

Deer tracks typically show two toes. Here, a deer was walking but accelerating.

Deer tracks typically show two toes. Here, a deer was walking but accelerating.

27DE86, Memorial Forest near Culver: deer recently browsed sassafras.

10JA87. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. After last night’s heavy snow, tracks (made this morning, early) only abundant at a large patch of brush in SE corner of preserve, along N edge. All made early this morning except one flushed by a person who was tracking it.

11JA87. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Deer were bedding in snow in same general area, had been there a while before my approach scared them up around 11:30 a.m. They had not cleared a place but just lay down, and the snow barely melted. Beds of the 4 deer were 5-20m apart. Other areas, similar in size and with sides pressed smooth by deer’s body (1 with hairs), had ground bare on the bottom (snow 6 inches deep). In the one with the hairs there were no clear signs of digging, but the others clearly had been dug out.

17JA87, Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. Half an inch of new snow fell the night before. I started tracking in the afternoon, but the tracks were difficult to follow as individual deer and small groups flowed together and apart, anastomosing their trails so that I couldn’t follow an individual for long.

18JA87. McKee Marsh. Better luck. 4 inches of new snow fell overnight, and I was able to follow a single deer for 2 hours, covering about a mile. I was able to stick with him (I believe it was a large buck). I began in the woods near the parking lot, where he followed a winding path, sniffing several shrubs and browsing on a Viburnum (3-lobed leaves and paired red basswood-like buds) and on buckthorn. In one spot where he urinated copiously there were symmetrical shallow hoof marks on either side of his trail, which had the effect of scooping snow into the spot where the urine fell. Then he emerged into open fields E of the woods, wound through a marshy spot, crossed Mack Road, then angled ESE. At one point he suddenly was spooked by a fresh snowmobile track, jumped to the left, then walked across the track and rejoined the trail. Occasionally I had problems when he joined another deer, but by finding every footprint I was able to stay with him until he re-entered the woods and joined 3 other deer. When they split I could not be absolutely sure which he was, but I have about 50% confidence that I followed the right one. He ate more Rhamnus, paused to browse heavily on a young bur oak, wandered up a hill, then joined another galloping deer (and 2-3 others), they all crossed Mack Road onto private property and I could not follow.

Where a buck urinated on his feet, blending tarsal gland secretions with urinary scents

Where a buck urinated on his feet, blending tarsal gland secretions with urinary scents

1FE87. Freshly browsed poison ivy, McKee Marsh. Also white ash within the past 2 weeks. Another deer browsed a woodland rosaceous small tree (probably crabapple), 2 inches dbh. Also a basswood. Twice, it defecated shortly after passing under low branches and browsing a few bites. I tracked the deer until I caught up with it in the cattail marsh north of the woods E of the marsh. It had turned to stand in a well hidden spot to watch me. When I got too close it burst from cover, bounded on through the cattails and through the field on the other side. Tracks in field took more of a bound pattern (not so spread front to back) before and after taller weeds, bounding high to clear them.

Later that same day, following another group of deer, I found where one had bedded briefly, at least, in the wet snow.

21FE87. At Greene Valley Forest Preserve. 5 bucks, still with antlers, traveling together as a group. They were moving fast when first seen, traveling through an open field between hedgerows at around noon. They stopped for a while after gaining a second hedgerow, then slowly moved in my direction (I was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt and dark brown pants, and kneeling). They always had one watching me, often all did, but didn’t run away until much later when I stood and walked. Once, a couple sparred with antlers. Mostly 4-6-pointers.

28FE87. At least 3 deer flushed from area thick with saplings and brush under scattered trees, only 150m from busy highway.

23MR87. Waterfall Glen. Deer dead beside creek near intersection of Cass Ave. and 91st Street. Lying in deer-beaver trail, hind feet in water (fracture of left hind tibia partly healed), head end up on bank. Dead at least a week, ribs largely gnawed away, head gone, muscle and internal organs mostly gone except hindquarters. Other tracks of beavers and dog or coyote (probably latter) nearby.

MY87. New Jersey Pine Barrens. Deer browsing blueberries, a little on oaks.

4AU87. Lebanon State Forest, NJ. 4-5 deer flushed from blueberry undergrowth, bounded until out of sight. Then one snorted a couple of times. I could hear them walking in even steps, without the hitching, explosive quality of a towhee. A little sharper and louder than the sound made by the gray fox seen shortly before. That night, as I walked barefoot in the dark, I came within 10 feet of a bedded deer. The deer detected me, and made a terrific racket getting to its feet. By the time it snorted so I knew what it was, I had taken 2 steps back.

Bumps on the head identify this newly spot-free fawn as a male.

Bumps on the head identify this newly spot-free fawn as a male.

3JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Following deer tracks, at least 4 days old. Browsed black maple, as well as several scotch pine branch tips (a broken-off branch, about 0.25 inches in diameter where browsed off; twisting and tearing of adjacent needles. Soon thereafter, browsed from a rose bush (prior to all this eating had followed a slightly sinuous path through maple woods, walking steadily). Tracks probably made New Year’s Eve (day before cold front). Feet compacted very wet snow, so probably late afternoon. Stopped to rub antlers on 0.75-inch dbh maple sapling, on its trunk from 1 foot to 2 feet up from ground, bark removed from one side. Soon thereafter it fell in with 2 other deer. Tracks same age, difficult to distinguish, but I believe the one I’m following has a longer stride. They paused to browse buckthorn, maple, rose (mainly the other 2?). Eventually the 3 bedded down beside a multi-stemmed, branchy silver maple in the midst of a field, about 100m from I-88 (in clear view; dark by then). 2 bedded together, third 10 feet from them. They stayed a little while, but still slushy when they left. They headed for the West Branch of the DuPage River, meandered, browsed, another antler rub. Lots of beds in that area. Tracks turn back along stream toward center of preserve. Lots of deer tracks enter and are present in that area by the stream, but none leave. The deer must cross the stream. I backtracked a bit. Buck had been with the others just before I picked up trail, probably was within sight of them throughout.

9JA88. Most of the needles on that pine branch now are browsed away. Deer commonly cross the river just opposite that grove, though routinely bedding among the yews and other ornamental shrubs between there and the stream. Once across, there is a tall fence paralleling the river and about 30 yards on average from it. The deer remain between river bank and fence. A heavily traveled corridor, a bedding area not far from that crossing site. Opposite the zone where I presume they also crossed the river last week, the fence is low enough for them to jump easily, and they either do that, or go under it at a nearby creek (more common), or continue along fence (also common). But soon comes I-88, and it appears to be a complete barrier on that side. A few cross the river there, a few go around the end of the fence. A very few go under I-88, on west side of river. None have crossed in that presumed crossing zone, but the ice probably has been thick enough to support them for only a couple days, and an open lead about 3 feet across runs along the entire east side along that stretch. That might explain why the tracks were running the opposite direction from last week on the stretches-in-common.

When you hold still and allow a deer to approach, it will stare at you and occasionally stomp a foot as though to startle you into moving and revealing yourself.

When you hold still and allow a deer to approach, it will stare at you and occasionally stomp a foot as though to startle you into moving and revealing yourself.

16JA88. McDowell deer crossed the preserve entrance road just west of the bridge, followed trail steadily between road and river (top of bank). Night before last, not last night. Lost in human and dog tracks, just before widening of area and feeding signs spread out from trail. Well below dam (at least 200m). There signs of much deer activity. Several beds in hill and old-wall area. More feeding and trails (well-used) in even wider area S of there. I flushed a large doe and 2 non-spotted fawns from beds in a pole-tree area a little farther down. They soon circled back around me (to my N). Visible parts: sharp dark horizontal line of back, horizontal white streak of belly cutting through trunks, from side; narrow white outline of tail from back, black nose and eye; brownish cast of fur against gray of trunks (not as distinct).

23JA88. McDowell. Deer recently browsed bur oak sapling. Tracked group of 4-8 deer into NW corner of preserve, brushy area seldom frequented by people, W of beaver pond (dam long, a winding 20-30 yards).

27JA88. Dan Ludwig flew over McDowell and passed on observations of deer: 8 in NW corner, 3 in NE near toll road (both groups west of river, and 6 SE, possibly off preserve.

30JA88. Hartz Lake. Deer trails through woods generally straight, and located to accommodate traveling from one goal to another (goals on either side of woods). Much interdigitation and side-paths abundant around the moist, tall meadows.

29AP88. Pratts Wayne Forest Preserve. Micro pressure releases in one or other toe show where push or pivot was greatest.

1MY88. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. Deer ate off tops of several Smilacina racemosa, plus a couple of Alliaria (and other plants, individually removed lower leaves). Not real recently, say 3-8 days ago.

7MY88. Deer tracks, Indian trails of Culver, also ate off tops of a few Smilacina stellata. At Hartz Lake, when one broke a twig loudly, jay responded with “thief” call.

15JL88. Deer heavily eating the Tradescantia at Fulton County museum property, not too long ago. Also eating Seymeria macrophylla.

Antlers nearly grown, but still covered in velvety skin as the bone matures

Antlers nearly grown, but still covered in velvety skin as the bone matures

1AP89. Patch of deer hair on ground in clearing at Hartz Lake. (I also saw some at Winfield Mounds last weekend). Shedding already.

2AP89. Hartz Lake. Deer in groups around clearing (in woods with very little understory) around 9 a.m. A deer snorted. I could just see it through the trees. The nose moved, perhaps a couple inches, but that was the largest motion I could see when it snorted.

13MY89. Hartz Lake, camping. In the dusk, 8 deer came to the prairie area (I was sitting at the opposite edge, by fire). Though basically a doe group, one yearling (small) buck was with them. He was chased a couple times, and a deer struck his back with a forefoot (not a mounting, but a blow). Smaller does still chase after mothers (presumed relationship) to be close to them, when alarmed. I kept still. They saw me, frequently moved heads side to side for parallax.

4JE89. Elsen’s Hill: deer trot pattern showing groups of two prints, 1 foot between prints in a group and 3 feet between groups. Two alternating group types, with front foot of each side ahead of hind foot of other side in that group.

21AU89. Deer tracks, Willowbrook Back 40. Emerged from run, NE corner. Walked down to pond, but stayed above edge (recently arrived, and had drunk from brook?). Nervous. Much starting and stopping, and stomping. Reached a small gulley, then broke into lope, as though the need for the longer step set off a release of nervous energy. 24-inch steps before the lope (toe-tip to toe-tip, measured diagonally). Tendency to splay left front foot and show its dew claws in the lope. While loping, set of 4 tracks 35 inches front to back, groups about 70 inches apart. The tracks were made last night (it had rained the night before last, the tracks made after the rain and after the soil surface had dried). About ten days later: In a hard lope up the hill, the deer showed dewclaws and spread toes on all but the right front. The deer stayed only a couple of weeks. We heard of someone who saw 2 bucks.

2SE89. Tracking deer across screenings trail, McKee Marsh. Stride tended to be slightly longer (23 inches toe tip to toe tip) in tall grass than on path (19-21 inches), except where adjusting stride to clear obstacles. At one point, a hind foot seemed to indicate a turn, falling and pointing to left of the front print, but in fact kept going in the same direction. Response to a disturbance as that foot came down? Implies independence of the 4 feet. Also happened the previous step with that foot.

15SE89. Hartz Lake, edge of open dune. Deer usually pause at edge of clear area before entering it. Shorter strides, and standing.

20SE89. McKee Marsh. A deer, steps 20-20.5 inches on packed screenings trail, became 25-27 inches in tall grass.

Sometimes deer tracks through tall grass are quite clear.

Sometimes deer tracks through tall grass are quite clear.

23SE89. Forest Park Nature Center, Peoria, IL. Deer have been browsing Aster shortii, a species of ridgetops, heavily in recent weeks. This has been their main food within the forest in this period, except for acorns.

24NO89. Hartz Lake. 2 deer beds, SE corner (behind cemetery) in woods. Windy day, saw 2 deer crossing road mid-afternoon, and as I studied tracks on the open dune a doe with a broken or injured right front leg limped past.

13DE89. Hartz Lake. Deer heavily using main north-south trail past couple of days (since snowfall).

16DE89. McDowell Forest Preserve. Patterns of deer activity in west part of preserve much the same as last winter. The only difference is a possible shift from the old home site to the center of the adjacent field in the north part of the preserve. If anything, there is even more concentration of activity to the north end of the preserve than before.

4FE90. Recently shed antler near mouth of Sawmill Creek, Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Late MY90. Hartz Lake. A deer appeared to stomp and snort as a gambit to make me move. Odor and sound spooked them more than small movements.

9JE90. Winfield Mounds. Heavy feeding by deer on goldenrods, past couple of weeks.

Wet forest litter from a recent rain foiled this fawn’s camouflage. Fawn spots form individualized patterns that permit recognition of individuals as long as they last.

Wet forest litter from a recent rain foiled this fawn’s camouflage. Fawn spots form individualized patterns that permit recognition of individuals as long as they last.

30JE90. West DuPage Woods. Fawn moving about and exploring on its own. Still small, but strong. I held still, it slowly moved toward me, sniffing and occasionally stamping like an adult. When mother appeared, and bolted, it ran, too. Tail flag.

13JL90. McKee Marsh. As I was running through the forest, I saw a fawn, approaching half adult size, on the trail ahead. I slowed and quieted my steps. It bolted when I was 10 yards away, and its mother and its sibling, who were close by, bolted as well. Unless the mother gave an audible signal I missed (unlikely, though I was so focused on the fawn that I didn’t see her), she was waiting for the fawn to make the move. If so, she was teaching it to run away from people and to react on its own without depending on her signal.

2JE91. First fawn tracks of the year, Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve.

Doe and fawn. By November, the fawns’ spots are gone.

Doe and fawn. By November, the fawns’ spots are gone.

21DE91. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Followed last night’s tracks of a very large deer, sex uncertain but more likely male. Traveled relatively straight lines through open field, but began highly convoluted turnings in a brushier area as it began feeding. Principal (only?) food Geum laciniatum basal leaves, nosed rather than pawed snow to reach them. Ate many. Went out of its way to examine a coyote or dog bed. Bedded, itself, several hours. Note: outward tracks from bed looked older than inward ones. Snow apparently less compactable, or more easily self-kicked back into track, with less smoothly compacted bottom of track and less crisp edges. Wandered and fed more after leaving bed. Defecated several times.

17FE92. Elsen’s Hill (W. DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.). I kept mainly to deer trails, saw 2 deer in a brushy area and, later, in a forest, saw 2 getting up from their beds. I stood still for a while, there, listening, and soon caught movement. Three deer slowly moved into view. Almost certainly the ones I had spooked, a doe and 2 fawns. I kept very still and they approached, the doe doing the foot-stomping test. Sometimes it appears to be largely a nervous expression, others it is very deliberate and calculated, the deer staring hard and keeping its head still while doing so. The fawns kept back. Several times she gradually worked to within 20 yards, then abruptly turned and ran, tail flagging, the fawns doing so as well. On one of these occasions she snorted several times. But I kept still, she didn’t go far, and repeated the process. The closest she ever came was 40 feet. I was wearing the green and black wool coat, standing clear of trees, with a medium density of 2-4-inch dbh trees and a few large ones in that area. The deer finally left for good at the sound of human voices on a trail not too far away, but the deer walked away rather than ran. During all of this there were occasional crows and squirrels seeing me and vocalizing. The deer attended the squirrels, but not the crows, starting at the squirrel’s bark and becoming more wary of me.

3OC93. Rock Island Park, Wisconsin. 2 bucks facing one another, heads lowered near to ground, maneuvering antlers. Like arm-wrestlers seeking best grip.

Early in the 90’s I had a season of deer hunting. During a several-day cold rainy period I sat for hours without seeing any deer. On drier days they were active.

Deer visited several times during the 90’s at Willowbrook. Usually they stayed 2 weeks at most, but during the summer of 1997 a couple of them stayed from May into August.

JE99, Kansas, Konza Prairie. A deer snorted and ran as I approached, holding head and nose above horizontal a bit while snorting.

15MY06. Fullersburg. A deer eating Virginia creeper leaves from a ground vine.

During the 3 years my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I mapped the winter movements of the preserve’s deer. In the winter of 2006-7 there were 4 groups which followed consistent daily routes as shown.

During the 3 years my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I mapped the winter movements of the preserve’s deer. In the winter of 2006-7 there were 4 groups which followed consistent daily routes as shown.

28AP08. New antlers beginning to grow on bucks (similar stage photographed 3 May last year).

New antlers just starting to grow

New antlers just starting to grow

15SE10. Meacham Grove. While doing herbivory data collecting I saw 3 antlerless deer. One, a fawn that had become spotless, made a persistent effort to nurse from its mother for a minute or so until she pushed it away. The third I believe was another adult doe.

Coyote Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I’ve been sharing smaller dossiers in recent weeks. Here is a somewhat longer one. This is a rare instance in which nearly all of my experience with a species came as an adult, in DuPage County.

Coyote

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

When I came to DuPage County in the early 1980’s, coyotes were known to live at Waterfall Glen and the West Chicago Prairie area. My first experiences were footprints at the Tracker Farm in New Jersey, and then a bed at the far end of a private (now destroyed) marsh in Glendale Heights, Illinois. I saw one briefly in the desert at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

30JA88. Hartz Lake area, near Monterey, Indiana. A coyote slow-loped across a dune. Front foot 2×2 inches, hind foot 2 long by 1.5 wide. The coyote loped with its body held at an angle so the front feet were on one side, hind feet on the other.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

29JE89. Coyote at McKee Marsh. It stopped briefly as it came around a bend in the mowed trail and saw me coming toward it. Big ears, light build and size gave it away immediately. It held still only a couple seconds, then turned and ran. After I got around the bend I got a glimpse of movement to the right as it leaped through a tall grass meadow and ran into the forest.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in the half inch of snow that fell last night on the McKee Marsh area. The coyotes’ activity was mainly on and around the frozen ponds. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks were absent from the wide area I walked in north Blackwell. Foxes were common there before; have coyotes driven them off? Trot the most common gait, in the diagonal position. Diagonal walk frequent, lope occasional. Prints’ actual size 2.25 long x 2 wide, 22-24 inches between corresponding track in each pair. A coyote picked up an old, small dead snake and played with it. Rolled in small amount of its urine on ice of marsh. Stopped and removed 2 burdock burs (some hairs still were attached). Coyote diagonal walk on ice 19-21.5 inches between steps. Lots of activity possibly by one individual, with lots of coming and going (small loops out and back), centering on a rotten goose egg, frozen in ice and apparently opened last night.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

13DE89. Probable coyote scat, 3/4 x 3.5 inches, Hartz Lake.

16DE89. Both red foxes and coyotes present, yet, at McDowell Forest Preserve. Former about 12-16 inches between steps in walk, latter 15-20 inches.

20JA91. I saw two coyotes working together at McDowell. When first spotted they were about 20 yards apart, walking single file. I was able to approach within 60 yards on the path, then they detected me and bolted. They had been investigating a brushy area near a bridge over a small stream, they ran back north and east when escaping.

26JA92. Tracks of a coyote in woods at Hidden Lake, in an area also visited some nights by red fox. Strides were 20-inch steps compared to the fox’s 16 inches. Coyote followed deer trails sometimes.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

28JA99. Cottontails this winter are not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out, or perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10FE99. A fresh coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail near the marsh contained both hairs and feathers, the latter from a bird in the cardinal to mourning dove size range.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

25FE99. Willowbrook. Fresh snow fell yesterday evening, and reveals that 2 coyotes covered the entire preserve thoroughly last night, and more, going out into surrounding residential areas. Sometimes the coyotes were on the same route, sometimes they separated. Once they bedded down within 2 feet of one another in a dense brushy area roughly equidistant from the nature trail and residences, impossible to see by anyone more than 50 feet away.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

26FE99. A coyote made a remarkable vertical 4-foot jump out of the creek at Willowbrook, having crossed to the point where the Safari Trail meets the stream at the high bank.

MR99. During the 90’s, coyotes have become much more abundant in the western suburbs. Tracks frequently encountered on the preserves, and in absence usually of fox sign until the past couple of years. One appeared at Willowbrook frequently around 1994-96, after the fox there was gone. Then the coyote vanished, after it was seen several times apparently weakened by mange. A red fox came in that winter, lasted a year, then it left. At that time coyote sign returned and have been frequent for more than two years, now. The common pattern has been for signs to be abundant for several weeks, then absent for several weeks, in alternation through the warm months, with 2 coyotes taking up steady residence on the preserve through the winter. I saw two different individuals one morning in winter of 1997-98, one missing all but a stub of its tail and so easy to recognize. They often deposit feces in the center of the nature trail, occasionally in other clear areas or smaller trails. Hair the most common dominant food remains in the scats, occasionally feathers or skins of fruits dominate. I saw a coyote crossing Kirk Road in Kane County at dusk one summer evening. Their howling, which I have heard at Pratts Wayne Woods, Hidden Lake, Lincoln Marsh and Fermilab, is extremely high-pitched and wailing in quality, and I have heard several animals howling together or howling back and forth in contact call style but not a single individual howling alone. During a night hike in September 1996 at Hidden Lake, a siren set off a probable family group of 4 individuals, and for the rest of the evening the scattered coyotes howled at regular intervals, producing the contact call effect.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

14AP99. The goose nest has been destroyed, the eggs preyed upon, at Willowbrook. Tracks in mud show at least 2 coyote round trips wading out to the nest island. No other predator tracks.

25JE99. I heard a coyote barking at a neighbor walking dogs at Willowbrook.

30AU99. Coyote scats at Willowbrook have been rich in fruit. This remained the case for weeks, with fruit appearing to be the dominant food.

5OC99. A heavy red fabric strip, 10 inches long, possibly a collar, in a coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail. Fruit remains dominant food in scats.

1NO99. Hair becoming more common, fruit less, in scats at Willowbrook.

2NO99. A coyote scat at Willowbrook had a bit of candy wrapper in it (shortly after Halloween).

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

1999-2013. It has become clear that coyotes are everywhere in the Chicago area, with even centers of towns being parts of territories. The coyotes, unless someone feeds them, are very good at staying out of sight. Reports from neighbors suggest that the pair at Willowbrook had a home range that extended from the East Branch of the DuPage River to the Village Links Golf Course, and so they were absent from the preserve for weeks at a time, but in some seasons centered their activity on the preserve (they never denned there, however).

At Fullersburg Woods, the pair was active year-round in the more open northern part of the preserve and presumably extended into adjacent areas off the preserve. In winter, the pair regularly wandered into the forested southern part of the preserve, usually hunting apart but joining up as they returned to their northern center of activity. I never found a den on that preserve.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

At Mayslake the pair had a den in the former friary garden area, but the den was destroyed as an incidental consequence of the friary demolition. Until then the coyotes were a constant presence on the preserve, but now they are there regularly but somewhat intermittently. They have been healthy and strong when I have seen them, and had pups most years. One odd observation was that one chewed up and swallowed a tennis ball discarded near the off-leash dog area. The fragmented ball passed completely through the coyote. Rabbits and voles are the more typical contents of scats.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Song Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

I established my vertebrate species dossiers in the 1980’s as an antidote to relying too heavily on the scientific literature and the stories of others for my natural history knowledge. I wrote everything I could remember about each species from personal experience, which generally was embarrassingly little. Then I began to add notes as I made new observations to beef out the files. Each subsequent entry begins with my date code: the day of the month, two-letter month code, and year. The song sparrow’s song is one of my favorites, evocative of my childhood in a small rural town. Hm…as I read this it is clear that I still can’t say I know all that much about this shy species.

The song sparrow is one of our common birds. The dark streaks and long rounded tail are among its physical features.

Sparrow, Song

Common in weedy to brushy old fields, railroad rights-of-way, etc., around Culver, Indiana, in south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. Sings from a high perch in a bush, on a weed, or in the low branches of tree. Song consists of many short, musical chirping notes, accelerating somewhat toward the end. First song in 1980 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, was on 19FE. A year-round resident at Culver, visiting feeders. Also in Pennsylvania. Song sparrows at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve (and one I heard at Waterfall Glen) have a “chew-beecha” phrase which they include in their song (note: this seems less true in recent years). That phrase has a squeaky, raspy quality, loud and interjected clashingly.

6FE87. Heard first song of year, Warrenville back yard.

22MR87. Fish hatchery, Culver. Fights frequent between song sparrows. Tumble together on the ground between short chasing flights. Vocalizations during fight a rapid-fire mix of toops, cheeps and bits of song.

11OC87. One still singing at Pratts Wayne Woods.

Song sparrow singing posture.

23MR88. A song sparrow sang from the end of an oak branch, halfway up a large tree, 15 feet off the ground, at edge of woods. Song: “chick turr, turr, turr-turr-turr, chick-tee-tiddle-tump” (last part variable). Switched to another song after a while: “cheedle, cheedle” was its beginning, but it stopped after a few of those. Throughout, alternated with a nearby male.

30JE90. Willowbrook. Some song sparrow calls have close similarity, even in tonal qualities, to some of chickadees’.

30SE99. Song sparrow at Willowbrook. Also seen 11&12OC.

27FE00. First song sparrow songs of the year heard near west branch of DuPage River at North Blackwell Forest Preserve.

4MR00. Morton Arboretum. A song sparrow displaced another and then sang, in brush beside a pond.

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. A song sparrow singing in tops of isolated 8′ shrubs beside railroad. Did not lift head to sing, but held head normally at 10-20 degrees above horizontal and maintained that angle while singing.

29AP00. Morton Arboretum. The call note is sharply bounded on each end, doesn’t trail off, is very high pitched.

Song sparrow nest on the ground in meadow area, Mayslake.

18JE00. Herrick Lake. A pair was very nervous about my presence, and though one had an insect in its beak they would not go to the nest though I was 20 yards away. A pair at Willowbrook earlier in the month behaved the same way.

22OC00. Song sparrows singing at Blackwell Heron Trail area. Some also were singing in Culver yesterday and the day before.

11MR01. Song sparrow singing at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve.

13OC01. Several at McKee Marsh.

22OC01. Several song sparrows singing, sometimes seeming to answer one another. Heron Trail, South Blackwell Forest Preserve.

3NO01. A single song sparrow song at Herrick Lake F.P., near big south marsh.

12OC02. At Fermilab, 2 kinds of calls from different individuals in different places. One had calls indistinguishable from the high one of white-throated sparrow. Bits of song, too. Another individual, perched in the open on top of a bush, exposed, had a call much like house sparrow’s.

Summer 2008. Song sparrows were among the species at Fullersburg raising cowbird young.

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

Brown Creeper Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week I am sharing my species dossier for the brown creeper, a species which seems increasingly to be present in DuPage County through the winters in recent years. I wrote the initial paragraph in 1986 as I established the dossier, then added observations with their date codes.

Brown Creeper

Observed during migration in DuPage Co., sometimes all winter there and in Culver. Latest spring observation 13AP86 [April 13, 1986]. When foraging they commonly fly to the base of a tree and work their way up, climbing on and searching the bark. Often when changing trees they produce a high-pitched cheeping contact call as they fly.

1AP87. First of year seen at Pratts Wayne F.P.

12MR88. First of year at McDowell.

28AP88. Migrants still present.

14AP89. Creepers at Hartz Lake.

18AP90. Creeper on 6-inch box elder at Willowbrook.

31JA99. First of year at McDowell.

1AP99. Willowbrook’s first of year. Also seen there on 5AP.

1OC99. First fall migrant at Willowbrook.

26MR00. Several observed at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. All but 1 foraging selectively on white oaks, flying to within 3 feet of the ground on the main trunk and working up it, staying on the shaded side (sunny afternoon) and within an 8-inch width, mainly going straight up even over bumps. When up in crown, fly down to base of next tree. High-pitched contact calls similar in pitch and tonal quality to those of golden-crowned kinglets. One paused to preen body feathers on anterior part of body, remaining perched on vertical bark while doing so. The only one on another species of tree was on a black cherry. During the brief time I watched, it both came into the sun briefly and exceeded the 8-inch path width.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. Brown creepers feeding along Sawmill Creek, with golden-crowned kinglets and a couple white-breasted nuthatches nearby (essentially a bird desert for more than half a mile until I reached this point). One feeding on a 6″dbh hackberry, going straight up the shaded side (sunny afternoon). Either the same bird on several similar sized hackberries, or several birds on same, always staying shaded side except for brief moments in the sun. When that happened, though, the creeper quickly returned to the shaded side of the stem. Once a creeper paused briefly, made a flycatcher-like sally from the bark into the air, reached with its head and beak at the turn-around point, then returned to the same point on the stem it had left. Flew out 3 feet or so. Another creeper was moving up the shaded side of an 18″ white oak, every few seconds reaching its bill to the bark and then making eating motions. Another creeper on a 12″ forked tree spent some time on the sun side (= side toward creek) of one fork, but the other larger fork was shading it.

1AP00. Morton Arboretum, Heritage Trail. A mixed flock with at least 1 brown creeper and 2-3 chickadees; juncos and robin nearby. Overcast day, no shaded side, but creeper still mainly going straight up the trunk. When defecating, lifts tail high, bending it well over back. When searching, doesn’t probe but rather peers, looking into crevices and going to different angles to do so as needed. Song “tsee-er-tser-tseree,” quick, high pitched like call but not as thin, sweet and musical tone. On a white oak, spiraled up a high 8″ branch.

13AP00. Willowbrook. 1 brown creeper observed.

13AP07. Brown creeper vocalizations include a rough call similar to that of cedar waxwing, faint thin high pitched notes given singly, and several such notes given in quick succession and similar to those of golden-crowned kinglet but a little fainter and more irregularly spaced.

2JA08. First creeper of the year, at Fullersburg (two stuck around for weeks afterward).

29AP08. Last creeper of the spring, at Fullersburg.

21OC08. Fullersburg. First creeper, fall migration.

29JA09. Mayslake. First creeper of the year.

25FE09. Mayslake. Another creeper, after a space of nearly a month, suggesting midwinter wandering.

25MR09. Mayslake. Another month between sightings.

21AP09. Mayslake. Final creeper of the spring at Mayslake (often present in past month)

29OC09. Mayslake. First creeper of the fall migration.

8JA10. Mayslake. Creepers seen in two locations.

1FE10. Mayslake. Another creeper, after a space of nearly a month.

19MR10. Mayslake. First spring migrant creeper.

13AP10. Mayslake. Last spring migrant creeper.

13OC10. Mayslake. First fall migrant creeper.

Great Blue Heron Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I posted one of my species dossiers. The idea is to make a record of what I know of a species from my own experience rather than what I have learned from others. This is a valuable exercise. When I got the idea and started it, I was embarrassed by how little I could write even for common species. It has forced me to pay more attention, to observe more, to be more discriminating in what I can claim to know about natural history. Even books and, yes, Internet sources like this blog need to be read skeptically. Today I choose the great blue heron, a species that played an important role in inspiring my interest in natural history studies. Records are dated with my code that begins with the day of the month, followed by a two-letter month code (usually the first two letters of the month’s name) and a two-numeral year. The code 16JE99 would indicate June 16, 1999.

Great Blue Heron

First observed at Hawk Lake, where several fished along the east side each evening in summer during my childhood. These were an early inspiration for my bird watching interest. Also observed in PA, along the Tippecanoe River in IN, in DuPage County, in Florida. Seek food usually in relatively deep water, sit-and-wait foraging. They quickly extend the neck to seize or spear fish or other prey. On rare occasions I have seen them briefly swimming on the surface of water too deep to wade. One in FL waited for fishermen to catch fish, then ran up in hope of getting the catch.

They have loud raucous squawking calls, a brief one in flight (often when disturbed) and a longer more rattling one when handled (i.e. at Willowbrook’s wildlife hospital).

Rookery established around 1967 south of Culver, Indiana, near the Tippecanoe River, in several large sycamores at the edge of a small woodlot near S.R. 17. That site still was used through 1986. Birds appear standing in nests in mid-March, radiate out in many directions to feed. Great blue herons then also reached all parts of DuPage County, IL, despite no rookeries there (a large rookery south of the county at Plainfield).

24JA89. A great blue heron flying east of Lake Maxinkuckee, IN.

10MR00. Several herons have returned to the new, small (10-nest) colony at Danada Forest Preserve.

7MY00. Great blue herons croaking in flight, traveling above West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. An extended string of them, so the calls may be communication between flying birds.

13NO01. I count 25 nests, now, in the Danada rookery. The trees are at the edge of a pond. They are not sycamores, but I didn’t get close enough to ID. Elm shape.

21FE02. A single heron was standing on a nest in the Danada rookery at 4p.m. The winter has been mild, and it’s not inconceivable that a GBH could have survived the winter locally.

1SE02. At 10:30 p.m., a great blue heron in Geneva, standing in shallow water in the Fox River, apparently fishing in the street lights.

16JE03. This year I know of 2 large nesting colonies in DuPage County, both established in recent years. One is at Danada Forest Preserve, the other at Pratts Wayne Woods, near the intersection of Rt. 59 and Stearns Road and visible from both.

8AU03. I kayaked between Willow Springs Road in Cook County and Route 83 in DuPage on the Des Plaines River. There is a strung-out colony of great blue herons nesting over a 2-mile stretch of river that spans the county line. The nests are in scattered dead trees close to the riverbank, taller than the surrounding trees, 2-5 nests in half a dozen trees total. Though separated sometimes by more than a hundred yards, the trees each seem to have one of the others in view.

28MR06. At Tri-County State Park, the 2 nests from last year (a new satellite of the Pratts Wayne colony) gradually had lost most of their sticks. On the 23rd, herons returned (later than in the larger colonies), and now are building the nests back up. One seen carrying a long thin stick in its beak, flying up to a perch beside the nest and giving it to its mate standing in the nest, who then added it. Two additional pairs perching in those trees, but no new nest starts yet.

18JA09. Danada. Checked great blue heron rookery. Most of the 15-20 nest trees were living cottonwoods, and 90% of the nests were in these. Two were dead trees, and three were willows. One cottonwood had 16 nests, a couple had 13, one had 11. Total nests counted 142. The rookery is in a swampy area around a large pond. Last summer I also learned of a rookery at Churchill Forest Preserve, on the islands in the East Branch of the DuPage River.

11OC10. During a dragonfly monitoring run on the Des Plaines River I noticed that, in addition to the scattered great blue heron nests in tree tops along the shore, there is at least one group of trees with a number of nests in a more concentrated colony. There are more than a dozen nests in at least 3 adjacent trees. This cluster is on the river’s south bank, east of Route 83.

Wings Flash

by Carl Strang

I was finishing a bike workout, pedaling the final blocks toward home, when a large insect flew across my path. Green, and with wings and legs widely spread, it gave me the split-second first impression was that I was seeing a praying mantis. But the wings were wrong, proportions were wrong, and it didn’t have the Edward Gorey weirdness of a mantis’ profile in flight. The insect turned around, flew back across the street, and crash landed on a lawn. I stopped, dug out the phone, and used it to photograph what I now realized was a greater anglewing.

The spread of that katydid’s wings in flight reminded me of another recent observation. I have taken opportunities to watch a few Texas bush katydids singing, and have been struck by how much the wings flip out to the sides, especially when compared to the more subtle vibrations of singing meadow katydids. I suspect I may be onto what made the Texas bush katydid I observed at Pratts Wayne Woods have such a slurred short-song, with a quality reminiscent of the broad-winged bush katydid’s corresponding advertisement. Here’s another shot of the Pratts Wayne katydid.

It’s missing a wing tip, and there also was scarring near the base of the left forewing. Such damage may well have caused the dramatically flipping wings to sound abnormal when rubbing together to produce the song. The typical crispness that would come from, say, this undamaged conspecific I saw in the dolomite prairie at Waterfall Glen, is compromised.

By the same token, the broad-winged bush katydid’s wings are shorter and wider, and might be expected to flop around more, so that the slurring typical of that species’ short song results. Experimental manipulations suggest themselves, but I’m not interested in captive studies at present.

Red Fox Dossier

by Carl Strang

This is another of my species dossiers, consisting of what I know about a given species from my own experience. I started the dossiers in the mid-1980’s.

Fox, Red

Initial summary: Common resident of mixed fields, brush and woods edges in northern IN, northern IL, south central PA. Also seen on tundra in western Alaska. Near Culver, IN, seen most commonly in winter, when they are frequently active and visible at a distance during the day. In summer, occasionally flushed from resting spot beneath a bush in an old field.

In Alaska they foraged for mice, birds, eggs and young waterfowl in summer. In tall sedges they attempted to pin birds and mice by listening for them, then leaping high and coming down with front legs together and extended straight down. Cached eggs singly, burying them near where found.

Den found on 2AU71 in high bank of tundra lake in bluffs area near Kokechik Bay, western Alaska. Entrance faced south. Well worn paths leading to water 15 feet below and to top of bluff 7 feet above. Entrance about 1 foot in diameter. A second entrance on top of hill. Fish remains.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, in June, their contact calls heard at night: a high-pitched whining scream or “yipe,” beginning and/or ending with a harsher, rougher, strangled sound. In May 1986, on a walk through the forest at the Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, IL, I felt the need to freeze. Soon a yellowish-colored apparition came toward me, following a dry streambed that passed 30 feet to my left. Soon the red fox came into clear view, a chipmunk dangling from its jaws. It was walking fairly quickly and directly, not looking from side to side. Chipmunks gave single “chip” calls and were silent as it passed. It went by me, then after another 20-30 yards came to a sudden halt, spun around, and at a faster speed came back past me. I suppose it had caught my scent where I crossed the stream.

Trot on thin layer of snow over ice. Width of entire path 5 inches. Travel left to right.

           RF                               LF

RH       o                    LH      o

 o                               o         

     3.5″        10″              3.5″

13JA87. Red fox bed in Willowbrook Back 40. Snow 6″ deep, was compressed in a 15″ diameter area. May have been flattened with feet first. No hair, but claw marks in bottom of bed probably from stretch as the animal prepared to leave. Bed in area where brush slightly denser than average, and concealed well by grasses on one side. Photos next day after some melting (bottom of one part melted out). Odor of fox evident on day it was made, not detected following day.

17JA87. Red fox lope. Front feet bigger, back feet have rounder heels. Body held at an angle to direction of travel.

LF       RF                              

 o         o                     RH       LH

                                      o         o

4FE87. Fox at Willowbrook cached a short-tailed shrew, and apparently stopped by later to check on it.

6AP87. Willowbrook fox still present.

17AP87. I saw the fox.

27JE87. McKee Marsh area. A red fox passed just north of sawdust storage pile. In thin summer fur. Saw me as it came even with me, 50m away (I was standing, but still), and it ran into tall vegetation.

23DE87. Fox swam across Glen Crest Creek at Willowbrook several times in recent days.

3JA88. McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. Several pictures of newly excavated fox den, with rabbit remains at entrance. In gravel bank above floodplain of stream.

9JA88. The McDowell fox has used the river ice intensively as a corridor and for crossing (tracks especially heavy opposite den).

15JA88. Followed Willowbrook Back 40 fox’s wanderings through last night’s inch of new snow, Back 40. Nearly all the time in steady diagonal walk or trot. Relying on nose for clues? Occasionally deviated to investigate rose bush or brush tangle.

17JA88. Blackwell. Rain melting snow reveals a superabundance of meadow voles (also found 2 dead voles), near where kestrel had picked the one found on the 14th. Predators taking heavy advantage. Fox tracks all over.

23JA88. Alternative trot pattern, body straight with path of travel? McDowell. Even spacing throughout (within and between sets), 12 inches separating (slow lope? But so close together?). Travel left to right.

 LF       LH                   LF       LH

  o        o                         o         o

            o        o                          o        o

           RF       RH                     RF       RH

Foxes highly active last night (rabbits, too). 1″ snow fell just after sunset.

28JA88. Fox tracks in normal walk separated by 14-18″. After 2 full days of no fox tracks, suddenly after last night the Back 40 is filled with them.

29AP88. Fox seen at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve. Stopped many times to look back at me as it ran away.

10SE88. One seen Herrick Lake F.P. Seemed weak, or perhaps simply expected me not to notice it there.

2NO88. Willowbrook. Tracks have returned to Back 40, after disappearing during summer of marsh excavation and nature trail construction.

15JA89. Red fox tracks at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve: one fox’s set had a pattern for a long distance, on cleared path with ice and a thin snow cover that had partly fused to it, of a mix of walk and trot, i.e., two walking steps and a trot step.

24MR89. Winfield Mounds, tracks. Red fox moved from walk to trot (body angle version). Step increased from 16″ to 18-19″, and more on toes.

22JE89. Scats in Willowbrook Back 40 packed with mulberry seeds. The berries first ripened within the past week.

7SE89. Red fox tracks near marsh. Fox also crossed Park Boulevard last night.

8SE89. Back 40, fox walking stride average about 16 inches, heel to heel.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in half inch of snow that fell last night on McKee Marsh area. Ponds frozen. Coyotes’ activity heavily on and around them. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks absent from wide area I walked in N. Blackwell. Were common before; have coyotes driven them off? (In late 90’s, foxes resurging; researchers say mange took them out).

20NO89. Red fox tracks, Willowbrook, soft soil (but true track size) 1 5/8L x 1 3/8 W.

14DE89. Willowbrook. Fox direction of travel when track partly filled with snow: slides foot in at an angle, lifts it straight out. Covered a lot of ground last night. Played a while with the caged fox. Below 0°F last night. Rabbits, mice and a muskrat active.

16DE89. McDowell. Foxes and coyotes present. Foxes about 12-16″ between steps in walk, coyotes 15-20.”

19DE89. Willowbrook. Fox carried stiff dry weed stem 1.5 feet long for some distance, dragging end in snow. Play? Were mink doing same at Herrick and McDowell last winter?

21JA90. West Chicago Prairie, on Prairie Path. Fox slow lope, maintained considerable distance. 9-14″ (variable) between footprints, tend to be greatest from the Left front to the pair of tracks. Gait developed out of a trot, body-angle version, with 11-12″ between pairs of tracks and 2″ (along axis of travel) between the members of a pair. The slow lope appears to be a common gait along here today, either an individual preference or controlled by the quarter inch of snow that had fallen earlier.

          LF       LH                  

            0         0                      0        0

 0                     0          0                    0

RH                   RF                              

26JA90. Willowbrook. 4 inches of snow dumped in heavy wind yesterday. Last night wind calmed. Sticky snow on all plants. Mice and foxes, some rabbit activity. Fox taking longer (16-24″) walking steps. Lifted leg to mark (male?). A common slow lope pattern, so similar to the diagonal walk as to be almost indistinguishable in this snow depth. Appear to be LF, RF+RH, LH. Space between sets of 4 tracks slightly greater than spaces between. Travel left to right:

 o                    o                    o                    o

          o  o                                      o  o

(actually, slightly longer hole in snow where right feet are close together)

22AP90. Winfield Mounds. Tracks near SE corner of preserve, near houses.

26JA92. Hidden Lake. A red fox in forest bedded for a time atop a fallen log, bed 8″ diameter at bottom, 12″ diameter overall. Fox removed a bit of a burdock bur with some hairs. Bed 2.5 feet above ground, on a hillside. Fox had walked along top of log to reach the spot.

From 1993 to 1997, red foxes were scarce in DuPage County. I don’t remember seeing any on the preserves during that period, and essentially no signs. Coyotes, meanwhile, became abundant. Beginning in 1998, I began seeing red foxes again. Coyotes remained abundant.

1AP00. Red fox scats on Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum, near its southern boundary with Hidden Lake Forest Preserve.

In the 2000’s I seldom have encountered red foxes or their signs. Based on reports from phone calls to the forest preserve district, and occasional sightings of my own, I have the sense that red foxes now are mainly animals of residential neighborhoods, and are much less common than they once were in the county. Their place on the preserves has been taken by coyotes.

American Toad Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have shared one of my dossiers. The idea, which I began in the 1980’s, is to make a written record of everything I have learned about a species from personal experience. Some dossiers have grown to be relatively large over the years. Others, like this one, have remained small.

Toad 2b

American Toad

Terrestrial most of year, in wooded areas, hunting for insects at night, catching them with long-thrown, sticky tongue. Sing in numbers in ponds in spring, song a trill. Sings later than chorus frogs, spring peepers and wood frogs. Smaller males ride on females’ backs, clasping with forearms. Eggs laid in long strings, hatch into tiny black tadpoles which develop in a few weeks into tiny toads that disperse, sometimes in great numbers, into the surrounding landscape. Common near home in Culver when I was a child. Once the dog grabbed one but spit it out and showed distress, salivating excessively afterwards.

10MY87. Singing at McKee Marsh.

30AP88. Singing at McKee Marsh.

12-13MY99. Singing at Willowbrook.

30AP00. I can hear them singing from the house on Briarwood, Warrenville.

21AP01. First of year singing, heard from the house. On 22nd, also, many singing at Pratts Wayne Woods.

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Chorus frogs and American toads have resumed singing after heavy recent rains have raised water levels, here and at Fermilab for chorus frogs, and here and at Fullersburg for toads.

21MY09. Mayslake. A toad moving through the savanna, mid-day. Earlier in the season several sang in the marsh just west of the stream, but only there on the preserve.

Mastodon Trees

by Carl Strang

 

In an earlier post  I briefly described the paleontological dig that has begun in Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve, centering around the find of mastodon molars and bone fragments. I mentioned that in 2008 the major discovery was of buried trees along with some black spruce cones. The Field Museum’s Scott Demel had the wood analyzed, and it proves indeed to be close to the same age as the mastodon, around 13,500 years. (In the earlier post I said the mastodon fossils were 11,500-12,000 years old; this was actually the raw carbon-14 date range, which has to be adjusted, for instance through use of tree ring records, to give the correct number of years in the past). So the mastodon died at the edge of a spruce-fringed lake.

 

On a tangentially related topic, recent wind storms have blown down some of the seed pods from a grove of Kentucky coffee trees beside the entrance drive at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

 

ky-coffee-trees-2b

 

These pods may have coevolved with mastodons and other extinct giant herbivores.

 

ky-coffee-tree-pods-b

 

The Kentucky coffee tree’s big seeds are very thick-walled and hard, just what you might expect if they need to pass through the mill of an oversized herbivore’s digestive system and survive prepared to germinate.

 

ky-coffee-tree-seed-b

 

Without such a preparation, the seedlings have a hard time breaking out, and perhaps as a consequence the Kentucky coffee tree is relatively uncommon. Certainly in DuPage County you are much more likely to find it in landscape or restoration plantings than as a wild-germinated plant.

 

Another tree in the legume family that has been tied to mastodons is the honey locust.

 

honey-locust-thorns-2b

 

This tree, also on the Mayslake grounds, shows the intimidating defensive thorns that have inspired the connection.

 

honey-locust-thorns-1b1

 

Like the Kentucky coffee tree, honey locusts have large pods. Their seeds are much smaller, however, so they have less difficulty in germinating on their own, and across its range this species is more common. It also became a popular tree for domesticated landscapes, once a thornless variety had been bred.

A third species whose seeds may have been dispersed by mastodons is the osage orange. I have not found any of these at Mayslake, but several grow beside Spring Road, less than a mile to the east.

%d bloggers like this: