I have been compiling the results of nesting surveys carried out by volunteers with the North Branch Prairie Project at four forest preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River. All four sites are being restored by the NBPP, and our bird surveys are part of a continuing effort to record the changes in plant and animal life produced by the restoration.
I worked with Bev Hansen and Bill Valentine at Somme Woods at the northern edge of Cook County. Margo Milde covered Glenview Woods, which is just west of the Edens between Glenview and Golf roads. Judy Pollock and Jeff Rovner covered Miami Woods, which is along the river south of Dempster Street, and Joe Lill took Sauganash Prairie Grove, which is south of Bryn Mawr between Kostner and Cicero.
Our combined efforts managed to confirm nesting by 32 different species at the four sites; another 16 species qualified as probable or possible nesters.
The four sites have considerable ecological variety. We have flood-plain forests, open prairies, marshes, brushy thickets, open savannas, closed savannas, and even a wet savanna. In an open savanna the trees are somewhat widely spaced, so a substantial fraction of the ground receives direct sunlight. A closed savanna is closer to a forest. The trees are less widely spaced, and much of the ground is shaded. The wet savanna at Sauganash is dominated by swamp white oaks--unlike the burr oaks of the upland savannas--and its vegetation is unique in the state.
Despite this variety, there is a substantial similarity in the bird life of the four sites. Of the 33 confirmed species, 14 were confirmed at more than one site. Of the 48 on either the confirmed or probable lists, 26 were found at more than one site.
The birds that bred in two or more locations are species common throughout this region, species with broad ecological tolerances but clear preferences for second growth, brushy edges, old fence rows, and similar products of our continuous remaking of the landscape. They are birds like the mourning dove, which can nest along the border between a virgin forest and a pristine prairie--or if such places are not available, in the alley behind your house. And there are downy woodpeckers, a species adaptable enough to dig for food in cornstalks if suitable trees are absent. And of course we have blue jays, crows, black-capped chickadees, song sparrows, robins, house wrens, and cardinals. These are the basic birds of northern Illinois, the staples.
Naturally we were all looking for something a little out of the ordinary, something beyond the staples. We all hope the North Branch will be a sort of pre-Columbian oasis, a glimpse into the diversity of the past. There are a few reasons for hope. The blue-winged warblers at Somme Woods, scarlet tanagers at Glenview Woods, and savanna sparrows at Miami are all rather special species.
But as I sit and tote the results of hours of fieldwork by our investigators, I think mainly of how our methods flatten experience. I remember all the early mornings at Somme last summer, the rising sun laying a golden tint over the landscape, the raucous cries of the redwings from the pond by the parking lot. In early spring Canada geese would rise from the pond as I approached. When a flock of geese passes over, you hear the bugling calls as a patternless cacophony. But when two birds fly overhead, you can plainly hear that they are conducting a dialogue. A loud ringing cry from one bird is instantly answered in a softer, hoarser tone from the other. And then another call from the first bird, and another answer--call and response continuing in a rapid, steady rhythm as these 20-pound birds pass so close overhead that you can hear the noise of their wing beats. In my notes this extraordinary experience becomes "2 C. geese on pond." On the sheet that tabulates the results of all this year's work it shrinks to "Canada geese...O," the "O" standing for "observed."
On those mornings at Somme everything happened at once. Sitting in the weeds waiting for a yellowthroat to fly to its nest with food for its young, I would see a green walkingstick climbing slowly, one leg at a time, up a blade of cordgrass, while two male redwings hollered at each other from adjoining clumps of gray dogwood. A northern oriole would land next to its nest in the nearest tall tree, while a tiger swallowtail butterfly lazily floated from flower to flower.
One morning while crawling through dense brush, I was suddenly hit with a strong wild smell. I could see droppings on the ground in front of me and, just beyond, a hole in the ground. It was a red-fox den. I was recording birds, so this mammal will get only a note at the end of my report. As will the several spotted fawns I flushed from the tall grass over the course of the late spring.
Practically everybody who gets involved in something like a nesting survey is late turning in reports. We all have reasonable excuses. We lead busy lives; we have lots of other things to do. But I suspect the real reason is that we don't want to face the task of reducing our complex experience to a series of formulaic snapshots: "field sparrow, singing male seen on 5/18, 5/24, 6/4." "Catbird carrying nesting mat'l, 5/24." "Robin feeding young, 6/8." And in the compilation I am now working on, even these few details get lost in lists studded with letter codes: "C" for confirmed, "P" for probable, "O" for observed.
Yet after years of reading such reports, I can study a bare list and create the place it came from in my mind. If the list features yellow warblers, song sparrows, catbirds, and robins, I can visualize grasslands studded with clumps of brush and second-growth woods bordered by shrubs. If the list features scarlet tanagers and wood thrushes, I can see a woodland with fairly good size trees and dense shade on the ground.
The biological sciences that are usually grouped together as the three Es--ecology, ethology, and evolution--have opened a door for us late-20th-century Americans. Together they provide a way for us to move from our own culture into nature. The progressives who invented environmentalism in the early years of this century used to dress up as Indians or as nymphs and satyrs from Greek mythology in search of a way to get close to nature. We at least are spared the need for playacting.
But our science tends to seek patterns, order, regular occurrences. We want data as a basis for generalizations. An ornithologist from the University of Illinois has been studying the nesting habits of our prairie birds. After totaling up the results of years of study, he can tell us that eastern meadowlarks will not nest in a prairie smaller than 20 acres, that Henslow's sparrows will avoid any grassland of less than 80 acres, and that upland sandpipers need at least 150 acres. This describes what he has seen, but it gives us no clue as to why these animals behave this way.
In Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez writes about the state of mind of the wildlife biologist who thinks of a wolf as "an object to be quantified; it is limited, capable of being fully understood." He compares this with the view of the Nunamiut Eskimos, who live among wolves, hunt wolves, and even use wolves to guide them to caribou herds. For them, the wolf in its essence is unknowable. We can observe much about the way wolves act, but we can never fully comprehend them. And we have to be careful about generalizing, because wolves are individuals too. Each animal has its own distinctive character.
If you press me for a conclusion, I suppose I am enough of a product of Western civilization to say that there is a pattern, a coherent order to animate nature. But I doubt if we could discover it with the methods of science. An ecosystem is like an equation with several hundred thousand variables. We lack the means to deal with them all.
So we pretend. We flatten our experience. We abstract a few perceptions from the overwhelming flood of sensory data that a trip to a natural area gives us, and hope that what we have picked out is significant, important, a glimpse of what is really going on under the staggering confusion of the surface.
Science gives us a way in, a door to nature. But once we step through the door, the only languages capable of describing what we find on the other side are the languages of poetry and religion. Myth and metaphor get us closer to the truth than science.