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Illinois Department of Natural Resources
August 2021
August 2, 2021
Photo by Mark Gibboney.

Want to Help Wildlife in Illinois?
Protect Their Habitat

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By Carla Rich Montez

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Illinois was once covered by vast prairies and abundant forests that were crisscrossed by free-running rivers and streams. Today, we see a different landscape. Our state has fewer grasslands, trees, wetlands and natural waterways. And the few remaining wild places are often isolated from one another.

A gold finch with a yellow breast and black wings bends down to pluck a seed from a purple coneflower in a  garden.
Photo by Sheryl Seyer.

This may not be obvious to the casual observer who watches songbirds at the feeders or a raccoon browsing in the cornfield. Yet beyond those common sightings, a larger story is being written. In our alteration of the natural environment, we are forcing our wildlife to live in smaller and more disconnected settings making it difficult for them to find food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young.

Yet within this crisis of habitat loss, there is good news. We can do something about it. Whether you’re an apartment dweller or a landowner, you can help Illinois’ wildlife. Here’s how to begin.

See Your Landscape as Habitat 

As a first step, make sure your landscape has the three habitat essentials. 

A hawk with gray wings and a tan speckled breast stands in a bird bath. Green lush vegetation is in the background.
Photo by Manny Becerra.
  • Food. Start growing more native trees, shrubs and flowers. They are specialists in feeding Illinois’ wildlife the fruits, nuts, nectar and pollen they need for food. Here’s a good resource to help you get started: Illinois Native Plants for the Home Landscape. And remember, you can start small. Add native plants as you are able. 
  • Water. Whether it is in a birdbath or a bucket under the down spout, water is vital to your wild visitors. And protect those ditches and low-lying areas that pool and tend to stay wet. They provide water and moisture for wildlife. 
  • Shelter. Designate some wild space in your landscape. Native trees, bushes, and grasses all provide excellent habitat, but so do their remains. Leaf litter, briars, dried stalks and rotting wood are excellent providers of cover and shelter. 

Make Some Adjustments in Your Maintenance Activities 

Good habitat can be both pleasing to the eye and healthy for native species if we make some small changes in our maintenance activities. 

An individual surrounded by leaf litter bends down to pull a seedling from a winter woodland. Trees are in the background, and a blue sky can be seen in-between tree trunks.
An individual working to remove exotic invasive shrub seedlings from a natural area. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS.
  • Reduce the amount of turfgrass in your yard. Nature prefers diversity, so a lawn consisting of a single species like turfgrass is contradictory to her standard. If you want a beautiful lawn that’s also good habitat, allow native plants to emerge. And mow less often. You’ll be amazed at the number of wild things that will return to your yard if you provide them the resources they prefer.
  • Scale back on chemicals. Some chemical use may be necessary to control invasive species, but follow the directions. Fertilizers and pesticides can leach into the water system, harm nearby species with drift and sicken herbivores that consume affected plants and predators that feed on affected prey. Use chemicals conservatively. They can have consequences far beyond their intended purpose.
  • Preserve existing habitat. Protect the high-quality habitat that already exists in plain sight. Road and rail rights-of-way, lawn and field borders and similar natural arteries are excellent providers of food, water and shelter. Plus they offer green corridors that connect habitat fragments. Let these wild areas grow.

Looking for even more ways to help Illinois wildlife? Visit the Habitat Helpers website for more ideas. 

Take the Next Step

A group of people with shovels are bending over to plant trees in a grassy area. Trees and shrubs are in the background.
A group of volunteers planting trees at a habitat restoration project. Photo by George Gentry, USFWS.

If you are ready to engage in activities that reach beyond your own property, here are some projects that can protect habitat on a larger scale.

  • Take a stand. Most conservation initiatives are undertaken because a citizen speaks out. Talk to your friends about habitat loss. And support civic leaders who care about the environment. Your voice matters.
  • Get to know the natural resources around you. Learn about the native plants and animals that live in Illinois and consider how you can contribute to their well-being. When you know more, you can do more.
  • Support research. When scientists engage in research about Illinois’ natural resources, they are following a trusted process that can guide conservation practices. If we are to understand the implications of habitat loss, we must rely on science. 
  • Get involved. Volunteer with a conservation agency. Whether you prefer hands-on projects in the field or working in an office, you have, or can develop, a skill that can make a difference. You can also help protect habitat by donating to the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund.
  • Be willing to engage in the difficult conversations. If we genuinely care about habitat loss, we must be willing to tackle the thorny issues that are causing it. Global warming, unsustainable farming practices, land development, fossil fuel use—these are only a few of the controversial topics we will need to discuss. Where we can find common ground, we can make progress. 

While we cannot return Illinois to its original landscape, we can turn the tide on its decline. In our own land use practices and in our public expressions of concern, we can change the story from one of habitat loss to one of habitat protection.

 A photo of a spring woodland is at the top of a graphic. Below the photo is text regarding the guidance provided to the author by listed resources for the article.
Photo by Dulcey Lima.

This story was curated by Carla Rich Montez, an Illinois Master Naturalist volunteering as an outdoor writer. 

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