You can read the history of our state in the pages of The Birds of Illinois by H. David Bohlen. Species by species, Bohlen lays out the effects our remaking of the state has had on the birds who share this land with us.
Of the greater prairie-chicken he says, "Greater Prairie-Chickens were an integral part of the tall-grass prairie in Illinois. When the prairie . . . was destroyed, so were the chickens.É Prairie-chickens were still present in 74 counties in 1912, but just 21 years later there were none west of the Illinois River. . . . Today this grouse of the tall-grass prairie exists only in Jasper and Marion Counties on managed sanctuaries, a remnant population of 200 in the spring of 1986."
Bohlen quotes Robert Ridgway, writing in 1889: "Along the larger water-courses in our State the Bald Eagle is a more or less common bird, and may be met with at all times of the year." In 1854 R. Kennicott described the now endangered Cooper's hawk as simply "common," and told of seeing flocks of thousands of migrating red-shouldered hawks, now a threatened species.
Of the eastern bluebird Bohlen says, "Once a common sight, the handsome Eastern Bluebird is not well known today except among birdwatchers. It formerly was found in towns and around dwellings, but now it is entirely rural because of the introduction of the House Sparrow, which competes for its nesting sites."
Of the loggerhead shrike he writes, "An interesting and unique bird, the Loggerhead Shrike unfortunately is losing in its struggle to survive in a world dominated and manipulated by people. The northern and central Illinois populations are already mere remnants, and even the southern Illinois population has started to decline."
I could continue this litany of decline for several pages, but these few selections provide a tidy summation of the combination of catastrophes we have visited on our native birds. Habitat destruction has nearly destroyed the prairie chicken and the loggerhead shrike. Bald eagles were driven to the brink of destruction by poisonous chemicals we let loose in the environment. Eastern bluebirds have been harried by competition from introduced species.
At first glance The Birds of Illinois could be taken for a coffee-table book. Published by the University of Indiana Press in a glossy, oversized format featuring 48 color plates, it has a coffee-table price: $49.95 until January 1, $57.50 thereafter. The color plates are all excellent original paintings by the noted wildlife artist William Zimmerman that show nearly 80 of the 439 species treated in the text.
But this is a very disturbing coffee-table book, as much a cry of alarm as it is a celebration of the bird life of our state. Bohlen dedicates the book "to Illinois birders who search for remnants of natural beauty in a fragmented and impoverished landscape." Birders, unless they choose to close their eyes to our problems, are very much aware of how much we have lost and how much we continue to lose.
To those who think of Illinois as a landscape of tedious uniformity, the fact that a book on the birds of the state could include 439 species may come as a surprise. But Illinois, because of its size, location, and natural wealth, can support a wondrous diversity of birds. At the northern end of the state, we have bogs and other features of the northern forests. At the southern tip of the state, cypress swamps very much like those of Louisiana can still be found along some of the rivers.
In between, the land in its natural state was a mosaic of forest, savanna, and prairie. The Mississippi and Illinois rivers and their backwater lakes must have been some of the richest environments in the temperate zone in their natural states. Add to this our location on a major migration route and at the border between eastern and western avifauna, and you have an ideal set of circumstances for seeing lots of birds.
Here in the north we have a few nesting brown creepers, regular winter visits from evening grosbeaks and common redpolls, and occasional winter appearances by black-backed woodpeckers and boreal owls. In the south we have black vultures and nesting Swainson's warblers. And from time to time we are visited by western kingbirds, western tanagers, and Sprague's pipits.
The format of The Birds of Illinois is simple. Birds are listed in the standard taxonomic order decreed by the American Ornithologists Union, which begins with loons and ends with house sparrows. Each species entry is headed with the common and scientific names and a capsule description of the bird's status in the state, e.g. "Common migrant; summer and winter resident," "Very rare migrant," "Common migrant and summer resident in central and southern Illinois, decreasing northward," "Hypothetical."
"Hypothetical" is used to describe birds whose presence in Illinois has been reported without sufficient documentation to classify them as here for certain. It used to be that species could be added to state lists only if a specimen of known provenance existed. But now good photographs or precise descriptions by at least two observers of known competence are all that is needed.
Thirty-five of the 439 species in the book are classified as hypothetical. Another four (the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker, and Bachman's warbler) are certainly or probably extinct. Four--the common raven, roseate spoonbill, trumpeter swan, and sharp-tailed grouse--are classified as extirpated from the state. Ninety-nine species are listed as vagrants, which means they occasionally show up here, but Illinois is outside their normal range. That leaves us with just under 300 species that can be seen regularly, if sometimes rarely, in Illinois.
Under each heading is a brief introduction to the bird, a presentation of notable facts about its appearance, behavior, habitat requirements, and status. Following this introduction is a listing of sightings that records such information as earliest spring arrival (for migrants), high counts, and nesting data.
Much of this information is derived from the published observations of amateurs. Only in ornithology can one find amateurs playing this large a role in the science. It is a populist enterprise, in which personal reputation means more than degrees.
Bohlen also draws on the findings of archaeology to verify the presence of birds in Illinois' past. He can point to bones, or whole skeletons, of roseate spoonbills, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and common ravens dug from various sites around the state as solid evidence that these birds once lived here.
An introductory essay called "Conservation in Illinois" asks us to recognize how little space we are leaving for wild animals of all kinds and states the things we must do to arrest the decline of Illinois' birds. There is nothing new in this essay, but there doesn't need to be. The threats from excessive human populations and from habitat destruction here and in the tropics are well known--but they are the problems, and we must either deal with them or destroy the planet.
William Zimmerman's color plates are excellent, and they played a major role in financing the lavish publication of The Birds of Illinois--the cost of reproducing the color plates was covered by selling the original paintings. A limited edition of prints--50 of each painting--is also being offered to bring in more cash.
The creative financing is commendable, because without it we would not have this excellent work. Bohlen has been a birder since childhood, and his job as assistant curator of zoology at the Illinois State Museum at Springfield puts him in a perfect position to observe bird life in Illinois. He wrote An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Illinois in 1978, and he is exactly the right person to create a definitive picture of the present status of the birds of our state.