Thinking like a Prairie

I have encountered many coyotes at Midewin. There is nothing quite like their hair-raising yips and yelps haunting the sunset hours. Theirs is the call of the wild that nourishes that small sliver of wildness that yet remains within me. Therefore, it came as an especially sad shock to come across this coyote, abuzz with flies.

How old she was, how long she’d been dead and what she might have died of, I couldn’t say. Looking into her eyes, however – something only death afforded me the chance to do this close up – I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a haunting essay in which he reflected on the”fierce green fire” that he watched go out in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot:

I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I have never hunted, but I know those who do. And to a person they are united in their wish for fewer coyotes, believing that would lead to more pheasant, more deer. I don’t have children or pets, but there a number of news accounts about city and suburban dwellers likewise calling for the control or elimination of coyotes to protect kith and kin, as well as kittens and canines.

Like Leopold and his youthful “understanding” about wolves, a lot of myth and misinformation surrounds coyotes; something the Cook County Coyote Project endeavors to address through research and public education. Coyotes have adapted their behaviors surprisingly well and become an indelible part of our urban/suburban existence.

However, among the many things I love about Midewin is that its 19,000 acres of recovering prairie affords the opportunity for a coyote to remember what it is to be a true coyote; inhabiting wide open spaces, hunting voles and mice amid tall prairie grasses. Free of cars, people, noise, congestion and the myriad pitfalls that it faces as a refugee in the urban environment.

Midewin also affords me the opportunity to experience a coyote, a “ghost of the praire” as they were commonly known, in its native element. A summer or two ago, I was hiking through South Patrol Road Prairie – one of the earliest restoration areas at Midewin – when a handful of coyote pups tumbled out onto the path. So busy were they in wrestling with each other that they didn’t notice me at first. When they finally did, they were more curious than alarmed, and abandoned me only when they no longer could resist chasing each other back through the prairie grasses.

Staring into the eyes of the dead coyote, I sensed that there was, indeed, something known only to her and the prairie. Which makes her and her kind – no less than the returning grassland birds and the soon-to-be-reintroduced bison – an integral, wonderfully mysterious part of the healing prairie landscape of Midewin.


Winter Refuge

111217 barren farm field

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.

111217 sprp

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.

111217 coyote tracks

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.
american tree sparrow

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.

white crowned sparrow

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.

111217 heron tracks

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.

white tail buck