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The state of Illinois farm fields for raptors this winter
There’s something a little odd about the Prairie Falcons that winter in Coles County, Illinois. Prairie Falcons don’t usually spend much time so far east; though migratory, the raptor’s range tends to be in the arid grasslands and deserts of the western United States and Canada. But at least two Prairie Falcons have been repeat visitors to the Prairie State for the past several years, having taken a particular liking to the “Magic Stump,” so-called because it, like the “Magic Hedge” in Chicago, seems to have an otherworldly knack for attracting some of nature’s rarest and most majestic migratory species. Studying the stump and the falcons might be instructive as one thinks about birding Illinois this winter.
At first blush, the only remarkable thing about the old tree stump is its height—surrounded by a scrappy low-lying landscape of grasses and roots, it easily towers over its environs. According to Michael Patrick Ward, a Professor of Environmental Sciences at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Senior Ornithologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, this may be one of the things that has kept the falcons coming back for more. The vantage point over a wide-open farm field grants the birds of prey a generous view of a variety of potential meals, from voles, mice, and other rodents, to ground-dwelling birds and small rabbits. Throw in the fact that the area is a thoroughfare for pheasants and other small birds, offering a veritable buffet for hungry raptors.
Over their 15- to 20-year life span, Prairie Falcons can take their time scouting out the perfect place to winter. Male and female falcons split up for the winter, making this a rather solitary endeavor. Once they’ve gotten to know an area with a good place to roost for the night, abundant prey, and relatively little competition from other falcons, they’re likely to develop a fondness for it and continue to make the journey back after breeding season is through— even if, like the Magic Stump, it’s a little bit off the beaten path (although Ward notes that most won’t want to travel too far, making the stump even more of an anomaly). “A lot of birds show fidelity to where they live,” says Ward. “If a robin likes where they live, they will come back year after year.”
Because of their rarity in the area, the Prairie Falcons may have been noticed the most—“it’s a pretty obvious bird,” says Ward— but other raptors make use of the stump too, if perhaps flying a little bit more under the radar. According to an American Birding Association piece published in 2016, including both Bald and Golden Eagles, Snowy Owl, Rough-Legged, Red-Tailed, and Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins, and several Northern Harriers. Interesting non-raptor species in the area include flocks of American Golden Plovers and Smith’s Longspurs.
The falcons aren’t the only ones fond of their eastward winter getaway; the yearly return of the rare birds has attracted quite a bit of local attention, with birders eager to preserve and protect the conditions that make the stump a hospitable habitat. The stump rests on a plot of farmland, so farming practices can have an effect on the Magic Stump, its surrounding habitat, and the animals that frequent it. Ward says that no-till cropping and planting cover crops are two agricultural practices that help support biodiversity and nutrient dense soil. Whether those practices are implemented is a matter of whether or not policies financially incentivize them. No-till farming cuts down on disturbances to the soil, reducing erosion and damage to the soil structure. It is achieved by using agricultural drills or disc seeders and plows to make furrows precisely where the seeds are to be planted, leaving insects and small mammals unharmed. “The more bare earth, the better for soil and other wildlife,” says Ward. On the other hand, refraining from tilling may require the use of more herbicides, so there are a multitude of factors to consider. Still, it’s likely the area the falcons are utilizing is so vast that they can survive alongside a variety of farming approaches.
Cover crops help maintain soil integrity and nutrient density by rotating out cash crops, such as corn and soybeans, with non-cash crops such as rye, buckwheat, parsnips, and clovers, which grow throughout the winter. Once it’s time to plant the cash crops again, these crops are dug up but the nutrients remain in the soil, benefitting the next harvest. Cover crops aren’t just good for the soil, they also provide food and cover for nearby small animals, helping to maintain a steady supply of food for area raptors.
Farming practices are not the only thing that affect the Magic Stump. Climate change’s effect on seasonal variability is likely to change the dates for planting and reaping, pushing them earlier or later into the season. Ward says this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for surrounding raptors and wildlife, and that as farmers adapt to changing precipitation and temperature patterns, it’s less important to focus on the dates and more important to holistically incorporate agricultural practices that are beneficial to wildlife, minimally disturbing their habitat and providing a welcome place for them to return each year. That way, the magic imbued into this otherwise unremarkable stump can continue to flourish into something altogether extraordinary.
Illinois Hires New Executive Director of Nature Preserve System
The Illinois Nature Preserves system is pleased to announce they have hired a new Executive Director. The position had been vacant since 2015. Todd Strole, who previously worked with Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Natural Heritage as the Programs Section Manager, has had experience providing oversight to the Natural Areas, Endangered Species, and Natural Heritage Database programs, which will translate to his new role advocating for state natural areas and preserves.
Strole will assume the new role this coming January 2022, where he will provide much-needed support and vision for Illinois natural areas, such as the Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, which is a Category 1 Natural Areas Inventory because of its rich biodiversity, but is currently under threat.
You can read about Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves reaction and send a thank you to the Department of Natural Resources.