The Skokie Lagoons: A Jewel for Recreation and A Paradise for Volunteers

"This network of pools, channels and islands winds between Winnetka, Northfield and Glencoe. With public boat access (boasting some of Cook County’s best fishing), biking and hiking trails and picnic areas, this well loved, wooded preserve offers peaceful retreats and activities around every bend. The Skokie Lagoons Forest Preserve covers 894 acres."   Cook County Forest Preserve District


By John Elliott, Chicago Audubon Society Conservation Committee 

Bur Oak.  Photo by A.L. Gibson.Long before there was a forest preserve, before a settlement called Chicago was founded on the prairie, before Jean Baptiste DuSable built a trading post on the Chicago River, when explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet made the first recorded passage by Europeans over the Chicago Portage, a grand old bur oak much like the one pictured here would have already been a maturing tree. Known to relatively few, the original still stands today surrounded by a tangle of buckthorn on the western edge of Erickson Woods preserve of the Skokie Lagoons.

When the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the Skokie Lagoons during the great depression of the 1930’s, the region gained a fishing, boating, hiking and biking recreation area—at the cost of losing a diverse marshland home to many wild creatures. From Willow Road to Lake-Cook Road in Winnetka the only remnants of those original communities is a sedge meadow and the neighboring grand old oak that lie between the levee and drainage channel of the lagoons. Over the years much of the land was overrun by buckthorn and other invasive species of marginal value to wildlife. After the lakes of the lagoon system were dredged and rehabilitated in the 1990’s, some hardy volunteers took on the challenge of remedying at least a small portion of past neglect. Chicago Audubon’s Jerry Garden was the first volunteer steward to work on removing invasive species at a lagoon site along Tower Road in Winnetka, beginning at the shore just east of the parking area along Tower Road. After Jerry left us for Alaska, Dave Kosnik and Daniel Kielson took over as stewards. A few years later, Gary Morrissey also joined the stewardship team. In the past few years, work has been concentrated north of Tower, working east towards Forestway Drive. Buckthorn has been removed from much of the target area. While buckthorn removal remains a regular workday activity—and a favorite of many volunteers—there is a renewed emphasis on follow-up work. Even though “it’s not as much fun,” Dave says, follow up maintenance is defense against recolonization and is now a very important task. In spring, control of garlic mustard is also needed. 

A Few Things to Keep in Mind About Birdfeeders - in the Winter and All Year

Feeder Placement for Reducing Window Strikes—Placement of feeders within three feet of a window or more than 30 feet away from a window are the safest positions. When feeders are close to a window, a bird leaving the feeder cannot gain enough momentum to do itself harm if it strikes the window. And if feeders are more than 30 feet from a window, the birds are less likely to perceive windows as a pathway to other parts of your yard.Some other possibilities for hanging a feeder include hanging from the eaves at the corner of a house, or fixing it directly to a window. Also, periodically moving feeders to a different location helps to minimize the build up of waste on the ground. And placement near (but not over) a water feature, such as a bird bath, will almost ensure that birds will find your feeder.

Providing Safe Haven Near the FeederBirds are more often than not completely out in the open when at a feeder, making them targets for local predators. A brush pile or shrub within about 10 feet of the feeder will provide a place for birds to quickly fly into when a predator is within striking distant.The term “brush pile” describes a mound or heap of woody vegetative material, usually loosely constructed to furnish additional wildlife cover. Brush piles can be tidy or wild, large or small, and mostly made up of wood which can be alive or dead. Discarded Christmas trees (without the tinsel) can be used as a base for a brush pile—then build up from there. Our resident and migrating birds need the kind of cover that brush piles offer. 

Three Seeds that Attract Many Birds:

Black Oil Sunflower:  A favorite with many species—Cardinals, Woodpeckers, Blue jays, Goldfinches, Purple Finches, Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches and others. Because of raccoons and squirrels, it’s best to put most of your sunflower seeds in hanging feeders. The black sunflower seed, sometimes called oil seed is best rather than the grey-and-white-striped sunflower seed. It’s called black oil because they are higher in oil content and they also have softer shells.

Nyjer:  Goldfinches adore Nyjer seed. It is also very popular with Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls and other small-billed seed-eating birds—Nuthatches, Chickadees, Doves, and Downy Woodpeckers—but no one loves it more than Goldfinches! And Nyjer doesn’t look large enough to have a shell, but it does! And because it’s so small, it’s easy to mistake ground debris under a Nyjer feeder for seed that has fallen, but take a closer look at what looks like fallen seed—it’s most likely tiny Nyjer seed shells on the ground. The birds eat the seeds and the shells drop. And, happily for the birds, squirrels typically ignore Nyjer seed (which is good for you as well because it is expensive). Do not mix the Nyjer with other seeds because you will have squirrels and Grackles sweeping through the mixture to get at what they want.

Safflower:  Squirrels do not like Safflower, and Grackles may try it once but then generally leave it alone after the first encounter. Its thick shell is difficult for some birds to crack open, but it is loved by many species and high in protein. Put Safflower in tube feeders for House Finches, Chickadees, and Nuthatches. Use elevated feeders for Blue Jays, Cardinals, and other Grosbeaks, and put it in ground feeders for Doves. And, as with the Nyjer, be careful not to mix Safflower in with other seed.

Thank You for Feeding the Birds All Year Long!!


Illinois Birds: A Century of Change

Book Review by Gail Goldberger 


Illinois Birds: A Century of Change cover art

is published by the Illinois Natural History
Survey Special Publication 31, 2010, and
can be found at


Commissioned by the Illinois Natural History Survey, data compiled from bird counts at three fifty-year intervals, and repeated at the same locations, make up the oldest standardized survey in the nation.

A Century of Counts

From 1906 to 1909, in a first study of its kind, Alfred Gross, a University of Illinois graduate, along with his assistant Howard Ray, crisscrossed Illinois counting birds for the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS). For three years, in all seasons, they traveled by whatever means possible—foot, train, horseback, steamboat—conducting transects across the southern, central and northern parts of the state, border to border. They compiled a species count of birds using a specific, repeatable method, forming a baseline for research and comparison in years to come.

Red-headed woodpecker in flight

Red-headed Woodpecker. Photo by Jay Paredes.
Courtesy of

Fifty years later, during the summers and winters of 1956 to 1958, husband and wife ornithologist team Richard and Jean Graber repeated these surveys. From 2006 to 2008, one-hundred years after the initial surveys, six naturalists retained by the INHS again conducted these surveys, adding point counts to their methodology. ILLINOIS BIRDS: A CENTURY OF CHANGE is a compilation of their research and a look back over time at land use changes and changes in bird populations.

This is a benchmark book because of the time period and geography covered. Though the research does not take into account all bird species and all locations, enough major bird groups were encountered to provide conclusions deemed reliable, along with implications and predictions for the future.

Research Methodology and Results

Evaluating changes in bird populations is challenging and complex. INHS chose to look at occupancy rates, measured as increasing, decreasing, or stable. Eighty percent of the 133 species detected were encountered often enough to estimate how their populations changed over time, and 73 sites in the state were used as a basis for comparison.

In these counts, the number of species observed during transect surveys rose from 93 in the 1900s to 128 in the 1950s to 133 in the 2000s. The most recent count included 26 species that weren’t found at all in the first, and only one that had disappeared, the Bachman’s sparrow. However, there were other species not found in the 2000s surveys that were found in the 1906- 09 surveys and are still seen in the state today, like the prairie chicken.

Though land use has changed substantially, and the human population has increased, one-third of the bird species surveyed had stable occupancy rates, and slightly more (40%) had increases rather than decreases. The northern region had the most stability (50%), and the central region had the greatest increases (46%). All three regions had roughly the same proportion of declining species, despite differences in landscape.


Bobolinks. Photo by Greg Massey. Courtesy of

Population and Land Use Changes

In the last century, Illinois’ population increased from five to 13 million. Urban and developed areas, with 85% of the population, are the fastest growing land use category.

There are 4.5 million fewer acres of pastures, hayfields and grasslands. Prairies, savannas, and shrublands have also declined. Acreage of corn and soybean row crops increased, with greater yields coming from the same acreages. Forests have gained some ground, mostly in southern Illinois, due to population loss and abandoned marginal croplands.

Factors Affecting Changes in Bird Counts

Upland sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper. Photo by Michael J. Andersen.

Courtesy of

As land use changes, so do bird species. Shrubland and savanna birds like red-headed woodpeckers, brown thrashers, field sparrows and bobwhites have been in decline for a century. In the last fifty years, grasslands with meadowlarks, dickcissels, and bobolinks have given way to row crop fields with horned larks and blackbirds. Grassland ground-nesters like quail and pheasant are also among the “losers.”

Habitat quality and land management also affect birds. Habitat preservation and restoration are very beneficial. Illinois has preserved over 1.5 million acres of bird habitat (USGS 2010). The use of chemicals and pesticides less persistent than DDT, and improved water quality, has also helped sustain some species.

Notably however, are other factors influencing change. Among these are:

  • The introduction of species (exotics, invasives) from other areas;
  • Range expansions;
  • Climate change; and
  • Adaptation (the “wildcard ”)

Some species are better at adaptation than others, and these are going to “win ” out. Success favors the generalists, as opposed to the specialists. The implications of this are that the more we can do to preserve or create conditions preferred by the specialists, the more likely we are to avoid their extirpation.

The City Dark

The City Dark Ian Cheney’s 2011 award winning documentary – The City Dark – gives audiences an appreciation of what is being lost as we live in a world that is increasingly filled with light pollution. Besides no longer being able to enjoy stars in a night sky or inquire about the cosmos by peering deep into space – there are real dangers to human health and the well-being of the planet when we live in a 24-hour light cycle.

Migratory birds fatally attracted to urban lighting, baby turtles disoriented and confused by beach front lights are all victims of the rapid introduction of excessive outdoor lighting that has occurred in just the last generation. Changing light in the environment is altering habitat in a way that is not good for nature and humans.

Volunteers Needed to Help Save the Birds!

Chicago Bird Collision Monitors is looking for volunteers to assist in their conservation and rescue efforts for migratory birds in downtown Chicago and outlying areas. Help rescue the birds! CBCM is a conservation project of the Chicago Audubon Society. For further information, please call (773) 988-1867.

For even more info go to

What to do if you find an entangled bird:


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