The Spring Bird Count, which happens every year in early May, is one of my favorite days. I have picked out a census tract for myself in one of the choicest natural areas Cook County has to offer, and on count day, I can cover it slowly and carefully on foot, soaking up the solitude, the peace, and the rich bird life.
My tract lies at the far southern edge of the county. Highway I-57 forms its eastern boundary. At the southern end is Vollmer Road, which would be 200th Street if it had a number. The northern border is 175th Street. On the west is Ridgeland Avenue. Central Avenue cuts through the middle of the tract from south to north.
The land inside these boundaries is the sort of landscape only a native Illinoisan could appreciate. It is flat; I mean pool-table flat. It is almost all Forest Preserve. Before the Cook County Forest Preserve District bought it, it was mostly farmland. The FPD has planted some patches of trees, but the bulk of the property is grassland, and the blocks of land are big enough to let you feel the sweep of wide-open spaces that westward-bound Americans first encountered in Illinois.
It is very weedy grassland, a sort of botanical refugee camp occupied by an impoverished collection of low-rent plants–most of them alien species–whose aggressive ways have enabled them to take over almost all of the little open land left in Illinois. Botanists sneer at places like this.
But for all their sneering and for all the disreputable weeds on this land, the preserves north of Vollmer Road support as fine a collection of native prairie birds as you can find in Cook County.
Often it is hard to see them from the road. The road creates an edge, so you find edge birds living there, redwings, grackles, and mourning doves. But walk 100 feet away from the road and everything changes. Suddenly you are surrounded by the sweet whistles of meadowlarks and the dreamy buzzing of savanna sparrows. Bobolinks fly past trailing their tinkling flight song.
These three species are abundant here, but I am listening for the sounds of rarer creatures. I almost always hear them: the dry, insectlike rattle of the grasshopper sparrow; the hiccuping tsi-lic of the Henslow’s sparrow, the famous “song” that Roger Peterson called “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird.”
These two big-headed, stubby-tailed sparrows of the grasslands are a good deal more special than bobolinks. The Henslow’s is so uncommon in Illinois that it is on the threatened list. The grasshopper sparrow is not so disastrously rare, but it is certainly not a species you expect to see every day.
Both of these sparrows are tiny birds, less than five inches long, and their nesting territory probably covers no more than a couple of acres. But there is much evidence that they require lots of open space for breeding. Henslow’s sparrows probably won’t look at a field of less than 80 acres (an 80-acre square would measure about a third of a mile on a side).
In my census tract, they have the space. It is a full mile from Central to Ridgeland and only two tree lines break the sweep of open space. By the way, each of those tree lines has its own population of edge birds: redwings, cowbirds, song sparrows, and brown thrashers occupy the trees and about 100 feet of grassland on either side. Walk more than 100 feet from the tree line, and you are once again in the domain of the prairie birds.
The prize I am particularly seeking is the upland sandpiper, once one of Illinois’ most abundant birds, but now so scarce it is considered endangered. My census tract is the only place in Cook County where this species occurs regularly. Often I hear it before I see it. Its eerie, drawn-out whooping call seems the perfect sound for a land that is mostly sky.
Upland sandpipers like short-grass habitats, places where the grass is sparser than on the richer Illinois prairies. The preserves in my tract, in the days when they were farms, must have been treated like mines by farmers who took the fertility of the soil and gave back very little. The sandpipers’ favorite field, at the corner of Central and Flossmoor (190th Street), is also the most poverty-stricken piece of ground in the area.
Although my census tract ends at 175th Street, the preserves continue north from there in a solid block to 159th Street. North of 159th there is a slight interruption created by the seminatural grounds of the Oak Forest Infirmary and then another preserve, which comes close to the western border of the high-quality native prairies in Markham. For mobile creatures like birds, the sweep of this open land from Vollmer Road to Markham is among the largest blocks of contiguous grassland habitat remaining in Illinois.
Unfortunately, it may not be for very long. The Cook County Forest Preserve District has long harbored the desire to create, on some part of its holdings, a living-history museum detailing the development of Illinois agriculture, from the digging sticks of the Pottawatomi to the mechanized operations of today.
The museum was first proposed for a preserve near Barrington, but local opposition killed it. Now it has been revived in the southern suburbs. Two sites are being considered. One between Flossmoor Road and 183rd Street–which is right in the middle of my census tract–and the other along U.S. 45 between 167th and 179th streets.
The latter tract is also old farmland, but it is somewhat more diverse than the Flossmoor Road site. It sits on the Tinley Moraine, so it has actual hills and some pothole marshes where pied-billed grebes nest. Much of it is grassland, and it also supports good populations of grassland birds.
The design details for the living-history farm have not been worked out, but the concept in its current form calls for an 18th-century Indian village, a pioneer homestead of the 1840s, a horse-and-steam-powered farm from 1900, a typical rural town of about 1900, and a farm from the 1940s, when tractors were completely replacing both steam and horsepower.
Each of these separate exhibits would be staffed by people dressed in period costumes and trained in the essential skills of the period they are representing. Animals would be a major element in the exhibits, and there would be opportunities for children to pet the horses, cows, sheep, and other creatures. Visitors would move from exhibit to exhibit watching these demonstrations. All of this would require 600 to 700 acres of land, but much of that would remain undeveloped to provide a buffer between the separate parts of the museum.
When the Forest Preserve District took its proposal south, it got a cordial reception. The governments of both Orland Park, which adjoins the U.S. 45 site, and Country Club Hills, which is just east of the Flossmoor Road site, are lobbying for their locations. Orland Park is offering authentic period buildings, which the village has located, that can be moved to the museum. Country Club Hills has created its own design for the museum, adding a Farm of Tomorrow and a food processing exhibit to the original plan.
The opposition, an entirely volunteer operation so far, has taken longer to react, but now the Thorn Creek Audubon Society and the Chicago Audubon Society have begun to fight back. Their principal ammunition is a series of surveys of breeding birds carried on as part of the Illinois Breeding Bird Atlas Project, an enterprise being run by the Illinois Department of Conservation.
Their data supports what I had learned on my visits each May. Despite the weeds, both of these sites support significant populations of native prairie birds. Of these, only the upland sandpiper and the Henslow’s sparrow are included on the endangered or threatened list, but all of these prairie species have suffered population losses of 90 percent or more in just the past 30 years. If we continue to destroy their habitat, they will soon be rare enough to be considered endangered.
Their second objection is based on the Forest Preserve charter, which plainly states that the purpose of the district is the preservation and restoration of the native plant and animal life of the county. Cows and soybeans are not a part of our native flora and fauna. Past departures from the FPD’s charter–such as Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Botanic Garden–have required special legislation from Springfield to approve them.
I would love to see a living-history farm somewhere in the county. Both my parents grew up on Illinois farms–as did their parents before them–and I spent a good deal of time on my grandparents’ farm as a child. A living-history museum would display some of my personal history as well as the history of my native state. I’d love to see it, and I’d love to take my daughter to see it. If somebody wants to buy some land for such a museum, I’ll even come up with a few bucks for a donation.
But Forest Preserve land is for nature, and farms are not a part of nature. The Cook County Board (which also functions as the board of the Forest Preserve District) is constantly bombarded with proposals to convert Forest Preserve holdings to some other purpose. Many of these proposals involve laudable projects. But the board has consistently, and honorably, said no to project after project. It should say no again.
And the Forest Preserve District should look beyond the farm proposal and think about how it manages lands like the two sites in question. In the eyes of the Forest Preserve, these properties are on hold. They were mostly farmland when the district bought them. Forest Preserve workers planted grass on them, and they mow the grass from time to time to keep trees and shrubs from invading the land. They have even done some prescribed burning along Flossmoor Road.
However, these lands won’t be considered real preserves until the district completes a plan of tree planting, until it creates a landscape of mixed woodlands and meadows. Until that landscape has been built, these lands will be thought of as lacking in biological significance.
But as I discover every May, and as the people who did the breeding-bird surveys also learned, these are very important lands biologically, habitat for a complex of species that are suffering much adversity in contemporary Illinois.
I would hope that the Forest Preserve District would learn from its opposition. What we desperately need in Illinois are preserves that protect large blocks of uniform habitat, especially grassland habitat. We don’t need more edge. We have lots of edge and the species that prefer edges are thriving. We need open spaces big enough to satisfy whole populations of Henslow’s sparrows.
The district has several holdings that would make excellent grassland preserves, the Orland Park and Country Club Hills sites among them. In the long term, we might want to convert these grasslands to native prairie, but prairie restoration takes time, money, and manpower. Until we can get around to restoration, we can save populations of many native animals just by running a mower over the land once every two years or so. We need to remember that bobolinks are part of our history too.