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Wild Chicago: In search of the urban wildlife experience

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By Dave Chamberlain

Everyone has a wildlife sighting story. The time when, out of nowhere, the unexpected four-footed beast or winged oddity scurried or flew by in a place no one ever expected. My grandparents’ Ohio backyard once served as a pit stop for a hungry Pileated Woodpecker (a woodpecker as big as a hawk). My mom gets visited by moose in Vermont. As a native Coloradan, spare time was spent in the dwindling plains near Denver (the area that is now Columbine High School) looking for rattlesnakes.

But these sightings all happened in the suburbs or in decidedly rural areas, where the push of humankind only occasionally grazes up against the habitats of our furred, feathered and scaled friends. Urban wildlife is rarely as peculiar as the Pileated Woodpecker, as majestic as the moose, as exciting as the rattlesnakes. Instead, living in cities over the course of the last ten years, I’ve learned that urban wildlife tends to be more on the sinister side.

In Columbus, Ohio, the alleys are like a grocery store for unusual critters. Summer brings out raccoons of both abnormal size (i.e., fucking huge) and aggressive, pack-like mentality. Nothing sobers one up like rounding a corner into a pack of dog-sized, angry raccoons in the middle of a garbage frenzy. Opossums often reared their ugly heads as well, usually when we took out the garbage.

Once upon a time, Illinois was alive with samplings of bigger, exotic beasts. Populating the state took care of that. In biologist Donald F. Hoffmeister’s “Mammals of Illinois,” a list of animals extirpated from Illinois since European settlers arrived include bison, Timber and Gray wolves, elk, mountain lions, marten (ferret-like critters), porcupine, fishers and black bears. This has left Illinois with a smorgasbord of smaller varmints: shrews, moles, bats, rabbits, squirrels, gophers, rats, mice, fox, skunk, lemmings, voles, woodchuck, chipmunk and pantheon of shore birds. Pre-twentieth century reports tell of river otters (endangered in Illinois, though still found downstate) in the Chicago river, but the last sighting was more than 100 years ago.

According to Dr. Gene Mueller, executive director for the Chicago Commission on Animal Care and Control, Chicago isn’t a hotbed of exotic—wild—animals. “There are certainly deer sightings, near the forest preserves in the city.” Aside from being called upon to help an occasional wandering or injured deer, Mueller notes that pesky raccoons, opossums and skunks are behind the majority of city complaints. North Michigan Avenue is a veritable hotbed (relatively speaking) of coyote sightings. “In fact,” he says, “there was an incident in front of the Art Institute just last week.”

Travel out of the city to far-reaching suburbs will yield some results, though mostly through the air. According to Valerie Budach, spokesperson for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the area is a hotbed for summertime birds and waterfowl, including egrets and blue heron. In addition to fox and coyote, the Arboretum also boasts bluebirds, once listed as nearly extinct in Illinois. Another of Chicagoland’s treasures: a heron rookery at Baker’s Lake near Barrington. Reports from the area around Baker’s Lake reveal some small animal sightings, though nothing more exciting than a fox or deer.

In fact, as far as the urban wildlife experience, migrating shore birds are what we Chicagoans are more likely to see. In summer, you’ll catch them heading south, in winter—north. One of the city’s best spots is just south of McCormick Place, along Lake Michigan’s shoreline where the brush becomes impenetrable. Two other city spots, Jackson Park and the Lincoln Park Bird Conservatory at the lake and Irving Park, are magnets for migrating birds as well. The real coup: sighting the indigenous American Kestrel (sparrow hawk); it lives in urban areas year round.

Of course, any real Chicagoan knows where to find some indigenous wildlife. Just head downtown, to the Washington or Jackson El stops. Look on the tracks. You’ll see the wildlife. Scurrying around, foraging. You’ll see them.

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