By Carla Rich Montez, Extension Master Naturalist serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria, and Tazewell counties
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Illinois was once covered by vast prairies and abundant forests that were crisscrossed by free-running rivers and streams. Today, we see a different landscape. Our state has fewer grasslands, trees, wetlands and natural waterways. And the few remaining wild places are often isolated from one another.
This may not be obvious to the casual observer who watches songbirds at the feeders or a raccoon browsing in the cornfield. Yet beyond those common sightings, a larger story is being written. In our alteration of the natural environment, we are forcing our wildlife to live in smaller and more disconnected settings making it difficult for them to find food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young.
Yet within this crisis of habitat loss, there is good news. We can do something about it. Whether you’re an apartment dweller or a landowner, you can help Illinois’ wildlife. Here’s how to begin.
See Your Landscape as Habitat
As a first step, make sure your landscape has the three habitat essentials.
- Food. Start growing more native trees, shrubs and flowers. They are specialists in feeding Illinois’ wildlife the fruits, nuts, nectar and pollen they need for food. Here’s a good resource to help you get started: Illinois Native Plants for the Home Landscape. And remember, you can start small. Add native plants as you are able.
- Water. Whether it is in a birdbath or a bucket under the down spout, water is vital to your wild visitors. And protect those ditches and low-lying areas that pool and tend to stay wet. They provide water and moisture for wildlife.
- Shelter. Designate some wild space in your landscape. Native trees, bushes, and grasses all provide excellent habitat, but so do their remains. Leaf litter, briars, dried stalks and rotting wood are excellent providers of cover and shelter.
Make Some Adjustments in Your Maintenance Activities
Good habitat can be both pleasing to the eye and healthy for native species if we make some small changes in our maintenance activities.
- Reduce the amount of turfgrass in your yard. Nature prefers diversity, so a lawn consisting of a single species like turfgrass is contradictory to her standard. If you want a beautiful lawn that’s also good habitat, allow native plants to emerge. And mow less often. You’ll be amazed at the number of wild things that will return to your yard if you provide them the resources they prefer.
- Scale back on chemicals. Some chemical use may be necessary to control invasive species, but follow the directions. Fertilizers and pesticides can leach into the water system, harm nearby species with drift and sicken herbivores that consume contaminated plants and predators that feed on affected prey. Use chemicals conservatively. They can have consequences far beyond their intended purpose.
- Preserve existing habitat. Protect the high-quality habitat that already exists in plain sight. Road and rail rights-of-way, lawn and field borders and similar natural arteries are excellent providers of food, water and shelter. Plus they offer green corridors that connect habitat fragments. Let these wild areas grow.
Looking for even more ways to help Illinois wildlife? Visit the Habitat Helpers website for more ideas.
Take the Next Step
If you are ready to engage in activities that reach beyond your own property, here are some projects that can protect habitat on a larger scale.
- Take a stand. Most conservation initiatives are undertaken because a citizen speaks out. Talk to your friends about habitat loss. And support civic leaders who care about the environment. Your voice matters.
- Get to know the natural resources around you. Learn about the native plants and animals that live in Illinois and consider how you can contribute to their well-being. When you know more, you can do more.
- Support research. When scientists engage in research about Illinois’ natural resources, they are following a trusted process that can guide conservation practices. If we are to understand the implications of habitat loss, we must rely on science.
- Get involved. Volunteer with a conservation agency. Whether you prefer hands-on projects in the field or working in an office, you have, or can develop, a skill that can make a difference. You can also help protect habitat by donating to the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund.
- Be willing to engage in the difficult conversations. If we genuinely care about habitat loss, we must be willing to tackle the thorny issues that are causing it. Global warming, unsustainable farming practices, land development, fossil fuel use—these are only a few of the controversial topics we will need to discuss. Where we can find common ground, we can make progress.
While we cannot return Illinois to its original landscape, we can turn the tide on its decline. In our own land use practices and in our public expressions of concern, we can change the story from one of habitat loss to one of habitat protection.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Carla Rich Montez is an Illinois Master Naturalist volunteering as an outdoor writer, Carla has spent most of her career in communications working largely in higher education as well as in the healthcare and energy industries. In these roles, Carla has engaged in a wide range of writing for both print and electronic media that has included writing for brochures and press releases, ads, websites, non-broadcast television, social media and magazines. She has also written trail guides, travel guides and instructional materials. For the last 20 years, she additionally taught life story writing to retirees which culminated in a book she wrote about these experiences.
In 2019, Carla completed the training to become an Illinois Master Naturalist, a program for individuals wishing to become natural resource volunteers. As a Master Naturalist, Carla has expanded her writing to assist conservation agencies needing communications support. Today, she serves as a volunteer writer for Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge and for Outdoor Illinois Journal.
Carla lives in Peoria, Illinois, where she continues to write and teach while enjoying her three adult children, her husband and her devoted dogs. In her free time, she hikes, kayaks and practices yoga. She credits her interest in the outdoors to her farm upbringing where her parents cultivated her affection for nature.
This story originally appeared in Outdoor Illinois Journal, August 2, 2021
This article reflects the counsel of several professionals who have dedicated their careers to the protection of Illinois' natural resources. The author gratefully acknowledges their guidance in developing this story.
- Christine Belless, Chris Enroth, Nicole Flowers-Kimmerle, Duane Friend, Ryan Pankau: University of Illinois Extension
- Jason Beverlin, Emiquon Preserve, The Nature Conservancy in Illinois
- Duane Esarey, Illinois State Museum - Dickson Mounds
- Thomas Lerczak, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (ret)
- Lee Maki, Illinois Extension Master Gardener and Master Naturalist
- Jennifer McDaniel, Illinois Extension Master Naturalist
- Mike Miller, Kelsey Ernst, Susie Ingram, Dean Johnston (ret); Peoria Park District Environmental Services
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