The reason we look forward to changes of season in Chicago is that the weather in each season is so awful that any change sounds like an improvement. I find myself looking forward to hearing about wind-chill indexes rather than heat indexes.
Out in the forest preserves the leaves on all the trees are looking seriously chewed. It has been an excellent year for many insects. Working on identifying trees by leaf shape last week, I had a lot of trouble finding any leaves that hadn't been extensively reshaped by the mouth parts of assorted caterpillars.
This is a time that feels like the end of something rather than the beginning of anything. In this end of summertime we can see little blue herons and other long-legged waders from the south. Late summer is wandering time for them, especially for the birds born this year. Many birds show up far north of their breeding range in late August and early September before turning back south for the winter.
We usually think of bird migration as part of the fall, but nearly all of what we have seen so far is really late-summer activity. Sandpipers and plovers are already heading south by the end of July. The birds, some of which are pausing on a journey that takes them from the arctic to Brazil, feed and rest here on beaches and in marshes. In the days when people raised cattle around here the birds landed in cow pastures. Now they land on sod farms. If you want to see species such as buff-breasted, Baird's, and upland sandpipers, the nearest sod farm is the place to look. I'm not much of a fan of lawns, so I'm glad to find out that sod farms have some redeeming ecological value as way stations for tired sandpipers.
In keeping with the idea of ending something old before we move on to something new, I'd like to return to the subject of squirrels. Back in January I wrote a column about the two species that live in Chicago. One is the familiar gray squirrel, the other is the less common fox squirrel. Gray squirrels are everywhere, but the only fox squirrel populations I know about are in Lincoln Park in and around the bird sanctuary at Addison and in Horner Park at Montrose and California.
Gray squirrels come in two color phases: the familiar gray-with-white-underparts phase and a solid black phase. According to Donald Hoffmeister's Mammals of Illinois, the solid black phase occurs in the suburbs along the North Shore, but I had seen one on Stratford Place, which is about 3400 north, on the long block between Lake Shore Drive and Broadway.
I invited readers to send me squirrel reports if they had seen black squirrels or fox squirrels somewhere in the city, especially where I hadn't seen them. I got several letters that extend the range of the black squirrels all the way to Jackson Park and one letter that may reveal a fox squirrel population on the northwest side around Diversey and Kostner.
First to the black squirrels. Katherine Taps, who lives on Stratford Place, wrote to tell me that black squirrels were still around--my own sighting was some years ago--and that they were even known to slip through open windows in search of fresh fruit left out on kitchen tables. Ed Cohen, who lives on Chase Street in Rogers Park, wrote to tell me of a June sighting of a black squirrel in his backyard.
And Michael Bojanowski, who lives at Lake Shore Drive and Irving Park, reported four sightings of black squirrels in his neighborhood. Two of these sightings were in the summer of 1993, "one on the fringe of grass at the southeast corner of Addison and Pine Grove, one at the southeast corner of Clark and Irving Park in Wunder's Cemetery."
The other two were in 1994. One was in Wunder's Cemetery, the other in Graceland Cemetery, just across the street from Wunder's. Bojanowski suggests that "perhaps we have a small population centered on these old cemeteries."
Bojanowski grew up in Lakeview, and his letter also says, "Graceland was our nature preserve when we were children. We collected dragonfly nymphs and water beetles in the pond off the steps of the Goodman mausoleum. I am sorry to say the water has been 'cleaned up,' and no kids' aquariums will be filled from it now."
These reports made me think that Hoffmeister's work would have to be revised, but I didn't realize how much revision would be needed until I got a letter from John Knight. He wrote, "There is a family of the black squirrels on the Wooded Island [in Jackson Park] not 200 yards from the Japanese Garden."
Well, sir. We have black squirrels in Rogers Park, Lakeview, and now Hyde Park. Take that, Hoffmeister. For those of us who live near the lake between Rogers Park and Lakeview, and for those of us who live or work near the lake between Lakeview and Hyde Park, our duty is clear. We've got to get out there and find more black squirrels. Can we fill in the gaps in the range maps and find black squirrels living from the North Shore to Gary? New Buffalo?
And the fox squirrels on the northwest side? I have a terrible confession to make. I lost the letter. I could say in my defense that I am extremely scatterbrained, but I don't think I should use that as an excuse. So if the woman who wrote me about the fox squirrels that come to her back porch in the general neighborhood of Diversey and Kostner would please write again I would appreciate it.
One day last spring I did go out to her neighborhood in search of fox squirrels. I checked out a small park at George and Kenosha streets where I saw nothing but ordinary gray squirrels. I checked out Kelvyn Park, which is along Kostner just a block south of Diversey, and there I saw a very interesting squirrel. It had the characteristic buff underparts of the fox squirrel, but otherwise it looked like a gray squirrel. It was not as big as a fox squirrel, and the tail and face lacked the mixture of buff hairs I would expect to see in a fox squirrel. So maybe we have some small fox squirrels. Or maybe we have yet another color phase of the gray squirrel. Or maybe we even have a hybrid. In any case, we have something that bears further investigation.
My thanks to those who wrote. I would like to say that in our own small way we are doing science. And to those of you who have not given a squirrel a second glance I would say, pay attention.
One other letter I should mention came from Francis Dolowy, who lives in Hegewisch on the far southeast side of the city. Dolowy wanted some advice about building a bat house for his backyard. He lives near some very rich natural areas, and he sees bats around the neighborhood. So there is a good chance that he can attract bats with the proper kind of structure. I sent him a couple of pages from the booklet Wood Projects for Illinois Wildlife, which is published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and contains directions for bat houses, bluebird houses, and a variety of other wildlife structures.
I hope his bat house attracts hordes of the little creatures. They'll eat lots of mosquitoes, and they'll liven up the neighborhood. I've spent several hours over the past couple of weeks meeting with people who work in suburban forest preserves. They all talked a great deal about how much of their lives are taken up with complaints from householders about "problem" animals, complaints on the general order of "I built this beautiful house in the woods, and now I've got all these raccoons in my backyard. Do something about them." We live in a culture that regards "It's alive!" as one of the scariest things you can say. I enjoy encountering people who don't go along with the trend.