TLC's Blog (170)
Spring arrived late this year, and with it came the weekend drone of lawnmowers. Many an otherwise perfect Sunday afternoon nap has been shattered by a neighbor’s noisy grass trimming machine.
And for what? To do it all over again in seven days.
Over the years, I have had neighbors who pay a service to come out and fertilize their lawns and treat them with an herbicide that kills everything save the grass. I’ve also heard people complain about their high water bills during the summer when without constant water, the lawn might turn brown.
One upside of last summer’s drought was that more people let their lawns go dormant, and went weeks at a time without mowing.
The grasses that comprise the typical American lawn – Kentucky bluegrass and various fescues – are referred to as “cool season” grasses for a reason. They prefer cool and moist conditions like one expects in the spring.
Most of the grasses in American lawns were imported from Europe. Early settlers found grasses native to the Colonies were less desirable for grazing by the livestock that were brought along from Europe.
Picture the British and northern European countryside with sheep grazing on lush green meadows. Now, imagine the weather – cool summers, mild winters and plenty of rain.
Then, think about a typical July day in McHenry County: sunny, hot, humid, dry. Hardly ideal conditions for plants that like it moist and cool!
So, the first problem with the typical lawn is that the grass species aren’t right for our climate, and require large amounts of water and fertilizer to stay lush and green during the summer. The next problem arises from over-fertilization of lawns in residential areas.
Applying too much fertilizer too often is not only bad for the health of one’s lawn, but it will also have a negative impact on the water quality of local rivers and streams. Excess fertilizer (that which is not needed by the plants) will run-off with the storm water, which eventually arrives in a local creek.
A third concern related to lawn maintenance is air pollution. A Swedish study conducted in 2001 concluded, “Air pollution from cutting grass for an hour with a gasoline powered lawn mower is about the same as that from a 100-mile automobile ride.” The small engine of a gas-powered lawn mower is very inefficient, and lawn mowing in the US has been estimated to account for up to five percent of air pollution in this country. New mowers are more efficient than older models, but a better alternative is to replace the gas mower with an electric model. Not only do they emit zero air pollution, they are quiet.
Quiet enough that they will not spoil a good nap!
There are alternatives to the lawn. Beds of native plants, for example, are not only beautiful, but also easy to maintain. Native species can be found for any growing condition.
Got shade? Try hazelnuts, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums. Wet area? Nannyberry viburnum, river birch, sedges and Golden Alexanders are some species to consider. And for those hot, dry spots, I like New England aster, Compass plant, black-eyed Susan and Prairie coreopsis.
Before buying any new plants for one’s yard, check to make sure that the species chosen are not invasive in this area. The Chicago Botanic Garden maintains a handy guide to invasive plants that includes suggestions for alternatives.
I felt such joy yesterday at Shrub Club seeing a tray of hackberry trees sprouting!
I had my doubts about whether we would get anything from the hackberry seeds. The main issue was the seeds are small and non-descript, and when we were sorting, there were several moments when I realized that what I thought was a seed was actually just a small ball of dirt.
Growing up, I disliked hackberries. The bark was lumpy, the leaves were irregularly shaped, plus the leaves often seemed to be covered with bumps like they had some disease. It has only been as an adult that I have come to love this tree.
From the USDA, hackberries are great habitat trees for the following species: Wild turkey, ring-necked pheasant, quail, grouse, lesser prairie chicken, cedar waxwing, robins, and other bird species consume common hackberry fruit, which persist throughout the winter. Small mammals also consume the fruit. Deer will browse common hackberry leaves in the absence of preferred browse species. Common hackberry provides good cover for species such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, upland game birds, small non-game birds, and small mammals.
The hackberry is also important habitat for a large number of butterflies like the Hackberry Emperor, Mourning Cloak and Question Mark, in addition to a wide variety of insects that are important food for birds!
And that explains the bumpy leaves. The bumps are insect galls, which are basically tiny insect biospheres. From Wikipedia: Insect galls are the highly distinctive plant structures formed by some herbivorous (plant-eating) insects as their own microhabitats. They are plant tissue which is controlled by the insect. Galls act as both the habitat and food source for the maker of the gall. The interior of a gall can contain edible nutritious starch and other tissues. Some galls act as "physiologic sinks", concentrating resources in the gall from the surrounding plant parts. Galls may also provide the insect with physical protection from predators.
If you'd like to get in on the Shrub Club excitement, join me at Glacial Oaks Nursery Tuesdays from 5-7 and Sundays from 2-5! This is an exciting time now that the weather has finally warmed - everything will start popping now!
Glacier Oaks Nursery is located west of Harvard at 8216 White Oaks Road. From Harvard, take 173 west through Chemung to White Oaks Road. Go north for 2.2 miles, and turn right (east) in the driveway with the white farm house. Please pull into the second driveway (the north one) because there's better parking from that side.
The month of May is officially Invasive Species Awareness Month in Illinois!
The goal of the month is to help every resident of the state find out what he or she can do to help stop the spread of invasive plants, animals, insects and disease.
So, where to start?
Well, here is some info on a few of the most problematic invasive species one is likely to run across in this area:
1. Garlic mustard. Leaves on first year rosettes are green, heart shaped, and 1-6 inches long (shown to the left). Foliage becomes more triangular and jagged-looking as the plant matures. The plant is low growing, most often found in woodlands, and smells like garlic when crushed. Garlic mustard is a biennial, meaning that it only lives two years: in the first year it only has leaves and builds its roots; in the second year it uses the energy in its roots to grow flowers and produce seeds - lots and lots of seeds. And those seeds germinate the next year and the cycle starts all over again. This plant is a problem because it crowds out native woodland plants like shooting stars and trillium. Garlic mustard has also been implicated in preventing young oaks from sprouting.
2. Buckthorn (Glossy and European). This tree (or shrub) has dark green, oval leaves about 1-2 inches across. European buckthorn branches have thorns at the tips and the inner bark is orange, so it is very obvious when cut. Glossy buckthorn (shown in photo to the right) is very similar but grows in areas that are more wet. Both varieties of the tree produce purple to black berries in the fall. The berries are eaten by birds which then disperse the seeds. Buckthorn starts to grow earlier in the spring than native trees and shrubs, and it stays green later into the fall than most other plants. The tree was brought to the US from Europe as an ornamental (decorative) shrub. And in some communities, Buckthorn are pruned into topiary sculptures and revered for the dense, thorny screen that they provide between neighbors. Well, in natural areas, buckthorn wreaks havoc by shading out other shrubs, young oaks and all of the typical woodland herbaceous plants. Soon, the only things growing are buckthorn and maybe some garlic mustard.
3. Honeysuckle (Tartarian and Amur). Tartarian has red flowers and amur has white blooms shown to the left). Both have ovate (almond-shaped) leaves, but the Tartarian's leaves are blue-green and 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long and the Amur has leaves that are dark green on the top and light green underneath. The shrubs are native to parts of Asia and were introduced to the US by way of a Russian Arboretum in the late 1890s. Despite warnings by the Morton Arboretum in 1924 that the plants were weedy, the US Department of Agriculture recommended planting them for erosion control and wildlife habitat until 1984. Their leaves are the first to emerge in the Spring, and like buckthorn, they shade out native shrubs, young trees and herbaceous plants.
4. Gypsy moths. The caterpillars emerge in the first part of May (when serviceberry starts to bloom), growing steadily as they feed on tree leaves. They feed at night, then hide in tree bark or the ground during the day to avoid being eaten by birds. Their presence is usually first noticed when one sees that the leaves on a tree look lacy (since the caterpillars don't eat the leaf veins). If the infestation is limited to just a few trees, one can remove the caterpillars as they climb down the trees in the morning. Larger infestations require professional help from an arborist. The moths emerge in mid July. Females are white and do not fly, so are fairly easy to spot (one is shown to the right laying eggs). They lay masses of eggs that look like smears of peanut butter on tree branches and other surfaces. One can scrape the egg masses off when spotted, but be sure to scrape them into a container and destroy them. If they are scraped onto the ground, they may still hatch! The gypsy moth was brought over to the US from Europe, and it is a problem because infestations can completely defoliate trees. If defoliation happens several years in a row, the tree can be killed. Oaks - McHenry County's signature native trees - are a favorite of the gypsy moth.
Now that you know more about the impacts of non-native species, how will you celebrate this month?
I have a few suggestions:
1. Pull garlic mustard at a local woodland.
2. Cut buckthorn and honeysuckle at a local natural area.
3. Plant native plants in your yard.
4. Inspect your trees for evidence of gypsy moths.
The important thing is to do what you can - everything helps!
Visit the website: www.invasive.org/illinois to learn more.
“We live here. You don’t.”
What could the table full of developers say to that?
It was clear in Island Lake last night that the days of development companies coming to small towns to sell their visions for improving these communities by giving them gas stations and restaurants, attractive housing for seniors, upscale homes for young families, and a chicken in every pot are over. The curtain has been drawn back and the charade exposed.
As one resident said, “You are here to get the zoning on this property so you can turn-around and sell it and make your money.” (Wow, where was that guy 8 years ago during the go-go land development times?)
Let’s be clear. No one is against someone making money. What people object to is when someone uses someone else (in a less than genuine way) to make their money.
Like the snake oil salesmen of old, the land speculators roll in to town with the supposed cure for all that ails the residents, and leave as soon as the money has been made. And the townsfolk are left with a bad taste in their mouths – and a costly lesson.
Just because the development company paid a lot of money for the former Rimas Lodge property on the shores of Griswold Lake does not mean they are entitled to get to develop it the way they want. There is a public process for determining what development is appropriate for a given area. There are traffic studies to be done, environmental assessments to conduct, groundwater recharge concerns, school impacts, municipal water system capacity to consider and much more.
Well, at last night’s continuation of the Village’s March Planning Commission meeting, the residents of Island Lake made it abundantly clear that they value the natural resources and small town character of their community. They made it clear that traffic in the River Road/Route 176 area is already a mess, and the last thing they need are several thousand more vehicle trips filling the local roads each day.
And besides, as was pointed out, there is no demand for housing in the area, evidenced by the fact that there is already a lot of capacity on the books. For example, the Walnut Glen subdivision in town has just 36 homes built and 228 empty lots. That developer is gone, and it is unclear what will happen with the remaining parts of that subdivision.
On election day, April 10th, the Village residents came out in great numbers to elect a new Village President (who was President until 8 years ago), Charles Amrich, based at least in part on their displeasure with the Rimas Lodge proposed development that the prior administration appeared to favor.
The people who live in Island Lake have spoken. They aren’t in the market for any snake oil.
The Planning Commission will reconvene to continue hearing from the public on May 30th at 7pm.
It's Squirrel Week at the Washington Post! Kind of like "Shark Week," but featuring furry, bridseed-eating rodents rather than cold-blooded predators. Columnist John Kelly started Squirrel Week to highlight this beloved - and loathed - suburban resident.
Personally, I am fond of squirrels, and I actually feel bad that my squirrel-proof feeder works so well that I only need to add seed every third day now that the squirrels have given up. (I now put seed on the ground for the squirrels.)
The wide-eyed critter shown here is a flying squirrel that was spotted in a Woodstock backyard over by TLC's Yonder Prairie. He (or she) has been raiding birdfeeders at night for some time now, and the patient homeowner eventually was able to catch the culprit on film! The flying squirrel is mainly nocturnal, so it is uncommon for people to see them.
This little guy's cousin, the well-known grey squirrel, doesn't sneak around - he's right in the open, shamelssly cleaning out birdfeeders in plain sight.
In defense of squirrels, and in support of Squirrel Week, I thought I'd share some facts about squirrels. If you alreaady love them, you'll have some tid-bits to impress your friends. And, if you are not fond of them, maybe some fact on the list will get you to reconsider your dislike - or at least help you to dislike them less...
- The grey squirrel is a member of the family Sciuridae, which includes marmots (hedgehogs), prairie dogs, chipmunks, ground squirrels and flying squirrels.
- The oldest known member of the Sciuridae family dates back nearly 40 million years based on fossil records.
- There are 285 known species of Sciuridae on the planet, and they are native to North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
- Squirrels (and their kin) are found in habitats that range from bitterly cold regions to dry, hot deserts.
- Squirrels become fertile at about age 1, and will produce 1-2 litters a year. The young are born after 3-6 weeks gestation, and are mature enough to leave "home" after 6-10 weeks depending upon the species. Newborn squirrels are said to look like unshelled circus peanuts with little legs. And just in case you are having a hard time visualizing them, here's a picture for you.
One of the reasons squirrels inspire so much resentment and anger is that they are not content to just stop by one's birdfeeder for a snack when they are hungry. No, the typical squirrel will stay at a feeder and eat until all the seed is gone.
Further, they are agile and persistent, which means they will stick at the problem of getting to the desired seed no matter what obstacles are placed in their way. Here is a cute video of an obstacle course that someone set up for a squirrel that gives you an idea of what they will do for a dish of nuts.
My final thought in defense of the humble grey squirrel and his kin is this: if more people approached the obstacles and challenges in their lives with the tenacity and creativity of a squirrel, there would be no problem we could not overcome!
Any day now, a faint green will start showing up in local woods right at eye level. While the spring color may be welcome to one’s winter-weary eyes, it is a sign of trouble for native oak and hickory trees.
The problem with the first green of the year is that it grows on buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs that are not native to this area. The non-natives shade out native spring wildflowers like trillium, shooting stars, Solomon’s seal and wild columbine. They also shade out young oaks and hickories, trees that need a lot of sunlight to grow.
Buckthorn and honeysuckle have several advantages over the native species. Not only do they sprout earlier in the spring, but they stay green longer in the fall. Additionally, the non-native shrubs do not have to contend with the diseases and pests that kept them in check back in their native lands.
The extended growing season benefits the plants in a couple of ways. First, it gives them more time to store up energy in their roots through photosynthesis (the process whereby plants turn sunlight into energy). The chlorophyll in plants’ leaves (it makes them green) is used for photosynthesis. Another advantage to having a longer growing season is that the early-sprouters are able to reduce competition by keeping sunlight from reaching the ground which in turn prevents other plants from growing.
When the plants were moved to this area, they gained an advantage over native species because none of the pests or diseases they kept them in balance was moved with them. Plants, insects and animals that are native to an area develop a balance over millennia that prevents any species from becoming dominant. Without checks on their growth, the non-native plants can quickly dominate.
Humans have seen this scenario play out time and again, yet somehow society continues to move species from one part of the world to another - resulting in some dire situations.
In the Florida Everglades, Burmese pythons that were released by their owners (when the “pets” grew too large) are devastating the native animal populations, and could cause an ecosystem collapse. The snakes are well camouflaged for life in the Florida swamp, and the climate is ideal for them to breed, so the numbers grow.
In the southern United States, the kudzu vine from Japan was first promoted as an ornamental plant and then planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression as a way to control erosion. Today, this vine is known as the “Vine that ate the South” because it grows so aggressively (up to a foot a day). Kudzu is resistant to most herbicides, and experts say that it can take up to ten years of repeated spraying with chemicals to kill the plant.
In this area buckthorn and honeysuckle threaten the survival of oak woodlands – one of the most endangered natural communities on the planet.
Fortunately, there is hope. Buckthorn and honeysuckle can be controlled if one is willing to cut and herbicide the plants. Combined with reintroduction of fire as a land management tool, the non-native plants can be kept in check, and the native trees and wildflowers will thrive once again.
In addition to removing buckthorn, honeysuckle and other non-native plants from our local natural areas, it is also helpful to plant more native oaks and wildflowers.
Purchase locally grown, native oaks and hickories through TLC for pick-up in May. Check www.ConserveMC.org, or call 815-337-9502 to place an order.
A friend of mine, Debra Shore, is on the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District which oversees management of the stormwater and sewage treatment and disposal systems in much of Cook County. In honor of World Water Day (March 22nd), she sent out the following message that I quote in its entirety.
"We have lived through the golden age of water, the era when water was safe, abundant, and cheap. At least that's what Charles Fishman asserts in his compelling book, The Big Thirst, published in 2011. In the 20th century, Fishman contends, in the United States and the developed world, "we could use as much as we wanted, whenever we wanted, for almost no cost." But in our uncertain future, no longer will those three characteristics be present at the same time. Fresh water may be abundant and safe, but it will not be cheap. Water may be cheap and abundant, but it won't be safe.
"The development of water filtration and treatment systems installed in municipalities throughout America between 1900 and 1915 led to the most dramatic improvements in quality of life and increases in life expectancy. "How much did clean water matter?" Fishman writes. "[Two professors] conducted a remarkable analysis, published in 2005, teasing out the impact of the new water treatment methods on the most dramatic reduction in death rates in U.S. history. By 1936, they conclude, simple filtration and chlorination of city water supplies reduced overall mortality in U.S. cities by 13 percent. Clean water cut child mortality in half."
"Yet the miracle of modern water utility - that throughout America we can turn on our taps and expect safe, fresh water to come out every time - has lulled us into thinking it will be like that always. Not so, says Fishman, and I agree.
"Those of us who live near the southern tip of one of the world's great lakes are both lucky and obliged: Lucky because the Great Lakes collectively hold nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water; obliged because we must become better stewards of this precious, irreplaceable resource. In the last six years we have lived through water abundance - two of the wettest years on record (2008 and 2011) -- and water scarcity. The water level in Lake Michigan reached its all-time low in January and the Midwest experienced a severe drought in 2012. These wild swings are likely to continue, a possible sign of climate change.
"The average daily water consumption in Cook County is 165 gallons per capita (gpcpd), according to David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD). "That's huge," he says. The national average is 100 gpcpd and in Atlanta, where water supplies are scarce, consumption has dropped to about 40 gpcpd. The MWRD treats 1.2 billion gallons a day of wastewater on average. "If we cut our water use in half," says St. Pierre, "that's like building another tunnel system to handle storm events. You've just significantly increased the size of your system [without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new reservoirs or tunnels]."
"Biggest single thing you can do to conserve water? Get a new, dual-flush or low-flow toilet. I know, sounds funny, right? But old toilets are the largest single user of water in our homes and leaking toilets can waste huge volumes of water without noticing it (because water is still so cheap). Fishman again: "We use more water flushing toilets than bathing or cooking or washing our hands, our dishes, or our clothes. The typical American flushes the toilet five times a day at home, and uses 18.5 gallons of water, just for that. What that means is that every day, as a nation, just to flush our toilets, Americans use 5.7 billion gallons of water - 5.7 billion gallons of clean drinking water down the toilet."
"So, my friends, on this World Water Day, let's be mindful of our water use, thankful that we can depend on fresh, safe and, yes, still cheap water issuing reliably from our taps, and resolved to retrofit or replace our toilets. Because water matters."
The bottomline is that if we take water for granted, we do so at our own peril. Remember, people can live a few minutes without oxygen, a few weeks without food, and just a few days without water. Lisa
Illinois conservation land trusts have helped preserve more than 200,000 acres of open land in Illinois over the last 50 years. The conservation land trust movement is gaining momentum and is supported by private landowners who are concerned about disappearing open spaces, farmland and wildlife habitat, deteriorating watersheds and the need for increased local recreational opportunities, according to the Prairie State Conservation Coalition’s recent census.
“As we move into the 21st Century, Illinois residents are supporting conservation land trusts’ efforts to protect private land from inappropriate development,” said Brook McDonald, president of the Prairie State Conservation Coalition, Illinois’ state-wide association of conservation land trusts.
“Residents understand that more open space improves their quality of life, keeps property taxes low and ensures healthier communities for the future,” said McDonald.
There are 40 conservation land trusts in Illinois. Conservation land trusts are local, not-for-profit organizations that provide private property owners with a variety of legal tools to protect their property from inappropriate future development.
The most popular tool is a conservation easement, a legal agreement between a private property owner and a conservation land trust that allows the land to remain in private ownership. These agreements permanently restrict the type and amount of future development and activities that are permitted on a property to protect the land’s scenic and conservation values. In return, the property owner may receive significant income, estate and property tax benefits.
The Land Conservancy of McHenry County (TLC), the local conservation land trust, has preserved nearly 2,000 acres of land in McHenry County, the vast majority of which are preserved by permanent conservation easements. These lands are still owned by individuals and families who pay property taxes (at a reduced rate), still live on and use the lands as they have, and can pass the property on to heirs or sell it in the future. However, they rest assured that the land will never be developed.
In partnership with the McHenry County Farm Bureau, TLC is hosting a workshop for McHenry County landowners interested in learning more about how preservation of their land with a conservation easement can help them realize personal, estate planning and income tax deduction goals. Legal, tax, property valuation and conservation easement experts will be on hand, as will local individuals who have worked with TLC to preserve their lands with conservation easement.
I heard them before I saw them, hundreds of Canada geese. A raucous honking as the birds circled a pond, vying for a spot to spend the night. The sun was near the horizon, and as I drove home, I noticed ribbons of the birds flying as far as my eyes could see – some in the classic V-formation, others in long lines. All, presumably, in search of open water where they would spend the night.
Branta canadensis, as it is known to scientists, has proved to be a highly adaptable species that benefitted greatly from the rapid suburbanization of metro areas like Chicago since 1980. In fact, the geese like the suburbs so much, that many have stopped migrating – they are now considered a year-round resident species. Geese like the suburbs for several reasons: habitat, food and safety from predators.
Canada geese like open water, especially when it is free of places where predators can hide. People call these areas stormwater detention ponds, and have a tendency to keep the lawn mowed right up to the edge of the water. To a flock of geese, these neatly manicured detention areas are perfect.
Geese are herbivores, meaning that they eat mostly plants. They like grass and corn (which is a type of grass). And if there is one thing the suburbs have in abundance, it is grass. Plus, as development marched steadily westward into agricultural areas, the suburbs also put detention ponds and farm fields in close proximity. To the geese, we could not have planned it any better.
Finally, the suburbs tend to have fewer predators to bother geese. Many suburban communities have implemented programs to cull coyotes that might otherwise prey on geese. (Cull means to reduce a species’ population deliberately through hunting). Additionally, hunting, for sport or food, is not permitted in most suburban areas, providing geese with a large safe haven in the ‘burbs.
The birds are now found in such high numbers that many consider them pests. There exists a whole industry that offers to keep geese from golf courses, corporate campuses, public parks and airports. Some use border collies that harass the geese enough that they will not stay in an area. Others have machines that make noise to scare the geese and keep them away.
There is a simple way to keep geese away from some areas: plant tall vegetation. Seriously. Geese will not be comfortable in a pond that is ringed with tall grasses or shrubs – there are too many places where predators can hide. Similarly, by maintaining more tall vegetation in a golf course’s “rough,” geese will choose to spend their time elsewhere.
Personally, I like Canada geese – they mate for life and the parents work together to raise their young. And I appreciate their hardiness. About a Century ago, the Canada goose appeared headed for extinction due to hunting and habitat loss. After conservation efforts began in the 1960’s, they rebounded. Then, as more suburban development occurred, their population exploded, thanks in large part to open water detention ponds and mowed lawns.
It seems ironic that humans provide the ideal conditions for the geese to thrive, and then complain that there are too many of them.
In my last post – the one with the poem about cardinals – I revealed that while cardinals mate for life, they are not necessarily faithful to their mates. Studies have shown that 9-35% of cardinal hatchlings are not genetically related to the fathers who raise them.
While this fact may spoil some of the romance, it is actually a very practical matter for the cardinals. By breeding with multiple male cardinals, the females help ensure greater genetic diversity of their offspring. In Nature, greater genetic diversity means there is a greater likelihood that some of the off-spring will have the right stuff to survive in an ever-changing world.
In the scientific community, this is known as Natural Selection, a phrase coined by Charles Darwin. Natural Selection is the process where, over time, biological traits become more or less common in a given species of plant or animal.
To help illustrate the concept, consider the story of the peppered moth in the United Kingdom. These moths occur in both dark and light color versions. The coloring helps the moths to blend in to the bark of trees, which in turn hides them from predators.
During the industrial revolution over a century ago, scientists observed that the number of dark-colored moths increased dramatically. This was due to the fact that as more trees became covered in dark soot, the dark moths were better camouflaged than their lighter cousins. Therefore, more dark moths survived to breed and produce more dark moths!
Fifty years after the first dark moth was found in Manchester, England, there was nary a light-colored moth to be found. However, after enacting clean air regulations in the 1950s, the balance reversed. Today, the light moths are much more common than the dark ones.
In Nature, the ability to adapt is critical to survival, and the primary way for a plant or animal to adapt is through passing on relatively beneficial biological traits to the next generation.
The same rule does not hold for humans, as we have other ways of adapting to change. For instance, as ocean levels rise due to melting polar ice caps, many human populations will adapt by building homes on stilts, building taller levees and moving to higher ground. Plant and animal populations do not have the same ability to alter their environment to keep it habitable. Instead, those individuals who happen to have what is needed to survive in the face of change will survive to pass along their genetic material, and over time, the species will adapt – or go extinct.
So, for the cardinals, male and female, the sexual infidelities are actually very practical – a way of hedging their bets and ensuring that the species will have a better chance of survival, regardless of what the future holds.
When most people think of Valentine's Day, they think of hearts and flowers, boxes of chocolate, valentine's day cards, Cupid and his arrow -- all that stuff. Some years ago I heard a different Valentine's Day story that I wanted to share.
The month of February is when the cardinals start to sing. The beautiful red male cardinals, even more brilliant against the white snow, begin to sing their distinctive tune that some describe as sounding like they are saying "birdie, birdie, birdie." The females, colored a pale brown with a few red accents, also sing, but their muted plumage doesn't draw the eye as sharply as the males' red.
Something you might not know about the cardinal, is that they mate for life. Once paired up, they stick with their partner through thick and thin*. The male cardinal brings food to the female while she is brooding their eggs, and also to her and the fledglings once the eggs hatch.
So, some of us associate Valentine's Day with the return of the beautiful song of this beautiful bird that mates for life and brings so much joy! I hope you enjoy this sweet poem that always makes me smile.
by John L. Stanizzi
I had seen them in the tree,
and heard they mate for life,
so I hung a bird feeder
By the third day,
sparrows and purple finches
hovered and jockeyed
like a swarm of bees
fighting over one flower.
So I hung another feeder,
but the squabbling continued
and the seed spilled
like a shower
of tiny meteors
onto the ground
and blue jays,
annoyed at the world,
except the mourning doves,
who ambled around
like plump old women
poking for the firmest
head of lettuce.
Then early one evening
the only ones—
on the periphery
of the small galaxy of seed;
among the nuggets,
one seed at a time,
carried it to her,
placed it in her beak;
she, head tilted,
Then they fluffed,
did it all over again.
And filled with love,
I phoned to tell you,
over and over,
about each time
* To be completely accurate, cardinals are what is called socially monogamous - they raise the children together. But they are not always sexually faithful, and 9-35% of the fledglings that hatch have a different father than the one who raises them!
The last year or two, I’ve noticed changes to the farm fields I pass on my commute between Harvard and Woodstock each day. The hedgerows are thinning and in some cases, disappearing altogether.
As used here, the term hedgerow means a linear strip of vegetation (trees, shrubs and grasses) that runs along the fence line – or property boundary – between fields.
A hedgerow provides a wind break, which in turn reduces the amount of exposed soil that blows off of a farm field each year. It also reduces the amount of blowing a drifting snow, which can be a severe problem along US Route 14 between Harvard and Woodstock.
A hedgerow provides valuable habitat for a diversity of wildlife including deer, fox and birds. A hedgerow provides shelter that allows mammals to pass safely across the landscape and offers insects and birds a place to rest, nest and/or feed.
On some properties, hedgerows are the only place where old oaks are still found. When land was cleared one hundred of more years ago, farmers left many of the trees that were located on or near the property line. Over the years, these trees provided a comfortable spot to have one’s lunch on a hot summer day in the fields.
So, why are the hedgerows disappearing?
The high price of a bushel of corn.
Just ten years ago, the price of a bushel of corn was less than $3. Now that same bushel of corn sells for more than $6. And that was before the 2012 drought. Farmers are looking for additional land where they can plant corn to maximize production. And at 150-200 bushels an acre yield, even one additional acre of corn will generate $1,000 or more.
Demand for corn is high due in large part to federal Clean Air mandates that require blending ethanol with gasoline to reduce the emission of carbon monoxide. Increased use of ethanol also reduces America’s dependence on imported oil. Both seem worthy causes.
But the world is never that simple, is it? Corn is also needed for livestock feed and has become a staple in American processed food (high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch/baking powder, and corn oil being just a few).
So, basic economics tells us that competition for a product drives up the price, and scarcity (like happened in 2012 because of the drought) will drive up the price even more.
I’ve heard some folks say: “Most of those trees and shrubs are just junk anyway: box elders, buckthorn and honeysuckle.” Sure, but the wind doesn’t pay attention to what tree species is blocking it, and a bird that needs to take a break doesn’t mind if the only resting spot is a honeysuckle bush.
What does matter is whether there is something versus nothing, and the removal of more hedgerows for a few more acres of corn will have an impact on the future productivity of the land and the sustainability of the area for wildlife.
As the soil and birds start to disappear, we all may be wishing those hedgerows were back in place.
I heard an amazing speaker at MCC recently, Jon Erickson, Dean of the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources. Erickson is an economist, which would normally have kept me away from his talk, but he is unlike any economist I have ever heard, and I am very glad I went.
The field of economics has focused largely on measuring “economic” growth – things like sales, production and jobs. A term you may have heard is “GDP,” or Gross Domestic Product, which is the traditional way of evaluating a country’s economy. In the GDP system, things like hurricanes, pollution and crime all end up being positive for the overall economy because they lead to increased spending.
That sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Maybe so, but that has been the dominant economic measuring system since the 1950s!
Back in those days, Americans didn’t think about pollution, or things like “running out of oil.” We were building the Interstate Highway system, encouraging every American to own a car and buy a home in the suburbs. We were spraying mosquitoes with DDT, and pumping new-fangled chemicals over our farm fields to increase crop yields. Bigger and faster meant better. Gasoline cost 15-cents a gallon, and one could stick a straw in the ground in Texas and oil would flow!
Starting in the 1960s, the environment began to degrade as a result: eagles nearly went extinct, rivers caught on fire, Love Canal was brought to light – along with thousands of similar (but less well known) toxic waste dumps.
And, yet, forty years later, and the field of economics is only now starting to officially recommend ways to factor in the costs of “growth” – costs to our quality of life today and costs to the ability of future generations to have a good quality of life.
Erickson explained that there is a growing movement among economists to replace the old focus on measuring financial growth as an indicator of success with a system to measure resilience.
In the new system, one calculates the GPI (Gross Progress Indicator) for a state, city, country or business by taking the traditional measures related to how much money changes hands (buying and selling goods and services), and factoring in the social conditions (crime, education, war, volunteerism, divorce and health) as well as the environmental costs and benefits that include pollution, resource depletion (e.g. coal and oil extraction) and the effects of climate change.
Imagine an economic system that doesn’t treat a hurricane – or a war – as “good” for the economy. That’s crazy!
From an environmental perspective, I like highway rotaries (also called roundabouts). They allow traffic to keep moving, which cuts down on cars having to stop and start at a light or stop sign. That saves gas and results in less air pollution.
An additional environmental benefit is that less pavement is typically installed at a rotary when compared to a four-way-stop intersection. Part of the reason for that is what are called “stacking lanes.” These are areas where the roadway is wider approaching an intersection to allow for right and left turning traffic to “stack” up while waiting for a light to change to green. The extra roadway width reduces the time it takes for traffic to move through an intersection, as the folks going straight, the ones turning right and the left-turners are already separated when the light changes color.
When a rotary is installed, there is less need for “stacking” cars because the traffic moves continuously through the intersection, and whether a car is going straight, turning right or turning left, it will enter the rotary and follow it to the right until exiting onto the desired road. Less need for “stacking” cars translates into less need for pavement, and less pavement is a positive for the environment.
But, sometimes a rotary isn’t the best solution.
One of those cases is the proposed rotary at Harmony Road and Route 20 southeast of Marengo. The state’s plan to install a rotary at that intersection will require tearing down the historic Harmony School along with a grove of oak trees that were growing there before the school was built in 1931. Until its owner, Jack Feldkamp, was murdered in 2011, the school was home to his business, Harmony Real Estate.
The historic building sits empty, and if the rotary project goes forward, the school will be gone – forever. And a bit of our Heritage – a part of what makes McHenry County unique in the region – will be gone too. Roads can be moved or redesigned to avoid structures or trees, but trees and buildings are generally immovable (except perhaps at great cost).
Ancient oaks and historic buildings connect the current generation to a time before we were here. A time when schools were dotted across the landscape so that every child in the county could walk to and from school each day. A time when a grove of oak trees growing near a school was valued because of the shade it provided on a hot day (before air conditioning).
I can’t help but wonder if there is still a lesson left in that old schoolhouse? And if today’s “students” will slow down long enough to listen to it?
(Thanks to Kurt Begalka at the McHenry County Historic Society for sharing the photos of the school and oaks. www.mchsonline.org)