Natural Events, Revealed
How a Wildlife Column Consumed a Decade of My Life
by Jack MacRae
For the past decade I have written about coyote poo, cottontail pee, and vulture vomit, and I owe it all to Aunt Leona.
It was ten years ago, after reading the premier issue of Chicago WILDERNESS, that I sent an unsolicited article in which I listed the destinations of various animals that migrate away from our region. Trying to be a wise guy, I mentioned that my wife’s Aunt Leona migrates from downtown Chicago to Boca Raton, Florida, every November. Not long after, editor Debra Shore called me at home and told me she liked my “writing voice.” I think it was that Leona line. She asked if I would like to write the Natural Events Calendar for the magazine. Following my typical approach to work of “how hard can it be?” I told her yes.
Writing the Natural Events Calendar—a listing of “what’s debuting on nature’s stage in Chicago Wilderness”—hasn’t been hard at all. On the contrary, there is never a shortage when one considers the magnificent biodiversity of this region. In the past ten years I have written about 85 bird species, 37 mammals, 21 reptiles, 17 invertebrates, 55 plants, 13 amphibians, 10 fish, and 1 jellyfish. And this is only a fraction of the infinitely interesting life around us.
That is, of course, if we share the same taste in “interesting.” I find it fascinating that when white-footed mice eat the seeds of jewelweed, their stomach contents turn turquoise blue. I get excited to learn northern cardinals often fall victim to long-eared owls because they are bright red and still active at dusk. I can’t even describe my emotions when I learned the two-lined salamanders that live along Rayn’s Creek represent the extreme northwest edge of their range, almost 150 miles away from their main population.
Even though few people will ever see some of our rarest species, I think it is important to spotlight them on occasion. I get a real kick reporting the details of bobcats in Barrington Hills, the legless lizards that live in my co-worker Wendy’s yard, or the lone lake sturgeon captured and released in Wolf Lake.
Every so often I like to include events that virtually no one will ever see. For example, the developing lake trout eggs located 100 feet deep in Lake Michigan, and burbot (our only member of the cod family!) having orgies under the ice. On two occasions I mentioned extinct animals of the Pleistocene.
Growing up and working in the Chicago Wilderness has provided me, my friends, and my siblings with endless opportunities to explore our wild places, and I’ve greatly enjoyed sharing my personal encounters with local fauna. I remember the commotion when a common egret was spotted at Baker’s Lake for the first time in many, many years. I stood with my mother and many of the blue-haired Brahmins of Barrington as we watched the tall white bird cautiously wade through my swimming hole. The time I watched an enormous long-nosed gar being whacked with oars on a Bang’s Lake dock made such an impression on my five-year-old mind that I can still recall the sight, sound, and smell. The extreme close-up view of the snowy owl on the roof of The Field Museum—seen out the same fourth-floor window on the same date two years in a row—was magical, as was seeing the kettle of broad-winged hawks lifting off from an old black oak on a serene September morning in the Braidwood Savanna.
My most gratifying “natural event” was my prediction of a bona fide sighting of a wolf in the Chicago Wilderness (Fall 2003) only 14 months before a wild eastern timber wolf was killed on Route 173 near the entrance of Chain O’ Lakes State Park. The young male probably entered the region through the Fox River corridor from Wisconsin. Similarly, but entirely coincidentally, I wrote about freshwater jellyfish (Summer 2001) several months before they were spotted in a local quarry and made the Chicago papers.
One reason the writing of the Natural Events Calendar has been such a pleasurable undertaking is the intelligent yet gentle approach of the editors. They let me use big words and scientific jargon such as hibernaculum and RLUs (a term used by wolf researchers for raised leg urinations). More important, they have never failed to make me sound smart while still allowing me to write in my own voice.
When I wanted to convey that the red-bellied snake is restricted to moraines, they permitted me to refer to it as morainal retentive. They have let me use the term hork because it’s funnier than regurgitate. They did not, however, let me say that female meadow voles spit out babies like a Pez dispenser, lest I offend female meadow voles.
I certainly appreciate the editors allowing me to give nods to Chicago institutions and favorite hang outs, such as Bubbly Creek, the Uptown Theater, the Wild Hare and Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary, Heartland Café, and Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart. Over the past 36 columns I have made 43 references to rock-and-roll songs, including one to the Rolling Stones’ stunningly un-radio-friendly love song “Star Star.”
One time, I offered a beer to any reader who could answer a question: what were barn owls called before there were barns? Disappointedly, no one took me up on it.
Of course, “natural events” happen whether they are celebrated in a magazine or not. Our bobolinks will still winter in Argentina, Aunt Leona will still migrate to Florida, and buck whitetails will still grow big, bony, secondary sex organs on top of their head to impress the ladies and intimidate their rivals. These things certainly don’t need to be listed in print to occur, but as the one lucky enough to do the listing, I must say it sure has been a gas, gas, gas.
Random office items from the desk of Jack MacRae, naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Catch his “Natural Events” column in every issue of Chicago WILDERNESS.