The harvest is in. About 80 percent of all the land in Illinois now lies barren save for corn shock stubble, waste grain and a light dusting of snow. At Midewin, the re-emerging prairie likewise looks lifeless. But a brisk winter walk reveals it teeming with all kinds of critters that find refuge from the vast agricultural desert of the Prairie State.
During the growing season, plenty of pesticides and herbicides ensure that the corn and soybean fields that blanket our state contain few if any other species of plant, animal or insect. During the winter, most conventional ag lands are shorn of their target commodity plants, leaving no shelter and naught but virtual crumbs for food.
The prairie grasses and flowers of Midewin are, in fact, as dead as the proverbial doornail. At least above ground. Unlike annual corn and soybeans, the deep perennial roots of prairie plants live on and will re-sprout come spring. But even dead, the dry husks provide critical food and habitat for all kinds of mammals, birds and bugs; to see them through the long winter.
On my usual hike from Iron Bridge Trailhead to Prairie Creek Woods and back, the thin crust of snow reveals that I am not the only one to take this path today. Some time earlier, a coyote loped along in search of voles and white-footed mice; the tracks of all three winter residents in ample evidence, as are the occasional skirmish marks suggesting some bite-sized mammals played their role in sustaining the food chain.
Coyotes aren’t the only ones on the hunt for a warm meal. Several northern harriers, or marsh hawks, patrol South Patrol Road Prairie as diligently as any MP during the former arsenal days. Unlike the several red-tailed hawks soaring high or perched in trees on the lookout for a meal, harriers fly low and slow, just above the grass tops, relying on sight as well as sound to locate their prey and pounce.
Here and there, dense stands of prairie grasses harbor flocks of American tree sparrows. How important is good habitat for these birds that breed far to the north near the Arctic Circle? Every day, they need to scavenge native prairie seeds equal to one-third of their body weight or starve, which explains why you seldom hear the musical twitter of their feeding flocks in farm fields.
My bird list for the day also includes white-crowned sparrows, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, American crows, white-breasted nuthatches, brown creepers, Canada geese, a belted kingfisher and some unknown duck – hidden in the wet areas of the prairie, he revealed himself only by his quacking laughs in response to the knock-knock jokes of downy and hairy woodpeckers.
Most surprising of all was the set of tri-toed tracks along the prairie path – a late-lingering heron in competition with the coyotes and harriers?
And then there are the deer, jumpy for all the hunters in the field intent upon storing up food for their long winter.
Coyotes, harriers and humans. Voles, ducks and deer. All find winter refuge at Midewin. All are a part of the circle of life.