Living with Illinois Wildlife
Photos courtesy of the author.
I have lived in Illinois for 23 years and it is here that I have fallen in love with wildlife. Much of my free time is spent at my local state recreation area, where I have become familiar with the variety of species we have here. Whether you live in urban Chicago or rural southern Illinois or any point in-between, you’re likely to encounter amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds and fish on a routine basis. Here are three animals I frequently commonly encounter, along with some tips on how to peacefully coexist, and avoid conflict, with them.
The raccoon is a common backyard wild animal found throughout Illinois where nearby habitat is suitable. A mesopredator, raccoons are classified as omnivores but feed on plants as readily as they do animals. Honestly, they’re opportunistic feeders, earning themselves the fitting nickname “trash panda.” Raccoons are not opposed to eating an easy meal. If available, they’ll scavenge meals from garbage receptacles, outdoor pet food bowls, bird feeders and carrion.
Raccoons may be spotted at all hours of the day but are most active at night. When encountered by humans, raccoons usually choose to run away and climb a tree rather than stand their ground. It is wise to keep yourself, and your pets, at a distance. In terms of ecological value, raccoons are excellent seed dispersers. Seeds stuck in the dense fur of a raccoon coat can be transported elsewhere, as are the seeds distributed in their feces.
The white-tailed deer, the state mammal, is the only native deer in Illinois. A grazing herbivore, deer are most active at dusk but they do forage in the daylight during colder months when food is harder to come by. White-tailed deer are valuable from an ecological and economic standpoint. In addition, local economies get a boost in revenue during hunting season. Lacking the large carnivores that historically ranged throughout Illinois, healthy white-tailed deer don’t have predators in Illinois, but sick, injured or elder deer can be predated upon by coyotes or bobcats. Hunters and deer-vehicle accidents help to manage the deer population in Illinois.
Snakes are often a source of anxiety for people, but garter snakes are harmless. The common garter snake is found throughout Illinois, with the Plains garter snake common in the northern half of the state. If harassed or cornered, garter snakes may bite and potentially musk—a defense mechanism snakes use where they ward off predators by expelling a putrid-smelling substance from a gland at the base of their tail. Garter snakes are diurnal, meaning they are most active in the day. They move about in search of earthworms, frogs, toads, salamander, insects, mice and small birds. Garter snakes are often found in grasses and shrubbery, but they are highly adaptive snakes and will seek shelter in multiple kinds of man-made cover such as plywood and other discarded materials. Non-venomous snakes, such as garter snakes, are not dangerous to people and they and are crucial to a functioning ecosystem.
Australian Wildlife Warrior Steve Irwin said, “We humans still have a long way to go with learning to live harmoniously with our environment and its wildlife.” Recognizing the importance of wildlife and respecting their role in healthy ecosystems is crucial to preserving biodiversity.
Tips on Living with Illinois Wildlife
Preventing problems that may occur with Illinois wildlife starts with understanding the basics of wildlife management and actions you can take to avoid creating any problems. The Wildlife Illinois website has a detailed page titled “Prevent Problems” that you will find useful. Here are a few quick tips to get you started.
- Do not litter. Litter may attract wildlife. For example, throwing a half-eaten apple out the car window may not seem like a big deal but that apple will attract animals looking for an easy meal, putting them at risk of becoming roadkill.
- Outdoor cats are efficient predators and will hunt small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Consider keeping your cats indoors to benefit the local wildlife population. Feed your dogs and cats indoors when possible. At a minimum, bring pet food indoors at night, and clean up spilled food, to avoid attracts wild animals to your property.
- Do not feed squirrels, raccoons, deer or other wildlife. There are strict rules on feeding wildlife set in the Illinois Administrative Code 17-635 and in the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations. If you feed birds, install baffles on your feeders or select feeders designed to deter squirrels. It is important to clean your bird feeders and bird baths. Bird droppings can spread infectious diseases and bird seeds can mold. Feeding wildlife is unnecessary and often unhealthy for wildlife.
- If is illegal to keep wildlife. Baby animals, such as fawns, rabbits or birds, may seem innocent and helpless, but they are usually where they should be and the mother is nearby and tending to the young as needed. If you suspect a wild animal is sick or orphaned, do not take the animal. Instead, call your local wildlife rehabilitator and ask for assistance or let nature take its course. It is hard not to lend a helping hand but ultimately it is what is best for the animals and humans. Leave wildlife wild. For information regarding contacting your local wildlife rehabilitators visit https://www.wildlifeillinois.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Rehab-List-9-1-2022.pdf
Willow Simmons works as a veterinarian technician and in her free time she practices wildlife photography. The primary focus of her photography is the wildlife of southern Illinois where she lives.