August 3, 2020
A blue-winged teal foraging at the Ihrke wetlands. Photo by Ryan Askren.

Whoop, Cackle, Quack: How Restoring Habitat Brings the Birds Back

By Mike Budd
A mostly white crane with a dark crown and cheeks wades in a wetland.
A rare, federally endangered whooping crane wading at the Ihrke wetlands.
Photo by Ryan Askren.

If Illinois wetlands were a breakfast cereal, you’d hear them say “whoop, cackle, quack,” and being soggy would not only be expected, it would be welcome. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know that wetlands are essential, and when they’re healthy, they’re full of life. Take a moment to learn about one family who is making a difference for Illinois wetlands and learn how you can get involved.

While the majority of wetlands in Illinois were drained or filled-in starting more than 100 years ago to make way for homes, crops and other developments, today they’re making a comeback. Restored wetlands are bringing ducks back to the table faster than kids run for their chocolate-frosted sugar bombs. Here’s one recent example: George and Ann Ihrke, of Ford County, Illinois, hosted one of only 14 wild-hatched whooping cranes from the eastern population on their farm this past April. The whooper waded amongst the quacking of waterfowl, as pheasants cackled in the adjoining upland habitat. A dream had come true for both the landowners and biologists, just one year after restoration.

A young child eats cereal out of a bowl. The bowl has a hole drilled in it with a straw poked through at the bottom. Milk is dripping out of the straw. An agricultural field is in the background.
A child eats from a drained cereal bowl to simulate tile drained wetlands. Photo by Mike Budd.

We are actively working to replicate the Ihrke wetlands in east-central Illinois and the landscape is ripe with opportunities. Most farm fields in this part of the state are covered with small depressions, or bowls, that fill up after measurable rains. These small bowls were historically wetlands, but today they dry up within a day or two, due to drain tile lines or ditches sucking the water away. These tile lines are similar to someone drilling holes into the side of your cereal bowl and inserting a straw. If you start eating fast enough after pouring the milk, you might get milk and cereal in the first couple of bites, but in a few minutes your breakfast is ruined. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, complete with biologists who are working with landowners to actively sever, re-route or add control structures to these straws to ensure that the bowls stay full. Biologists are setting the breakfast table, so the birds have a place to rest and eat.

Of course, we aren’t going at this alone. This is a team effort among the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Ducks Unlimited and private landowners.

A pheasant with a red face and iridescent green head stands in a wintery grassland. Snow is falling and a little has all ready accumulated.
A ring-necked pheasant at the Ihrke wetlands.
Photo by Ryan Askren.

“Our team’s goal is to provide exceptional recreational opportunities, promote waterfowl reproduction and quality migratory bird habitat in an area with a rich hunting heritage. These wetlands also dry up in the summer, which allows them to grow a diversity of nectar sources for pollinators and monarchs. These wetlands have it all,” said Illinois Private Lands Biologist Brian Hidden.

Because more than 90 percent of Illinois is privately owned, the future of the state’s wildlife conservation rests with landowners who steward their land. Habitat restoration is expensive and a serious time commitment, but the return on investment is invaluable.

As private landowner George Ihrke explains, “we’re just starting with our wetland projects, but the increase in wildlife with the pollinator and wetland projects has been tremendous for upland game and shorebirds, as well as ducks.”

Ann Ihrke adds, “The pheasant population is exploding. Last spring, they were everywhere.”

Want to find out more about how you can get involved?

Contact the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program if you’re interested in learning more about how you can use your land to set the table for wildlife through wetland restoration. Email Partners Coordinator Mike Budd to get the process started or give him a call at (217) 416-3732.

Mike Budd is the Private Lands Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Illinois. He has worked with private landowners for the majority of his 12-year career in natural resources, including stints with Ducks Unlimited. Originally from Michigan, Budd has had the opportunity to work in multiple states including Virginia, New York and Arkansas and is excited that Illinois has such a rich opportunity for wetland restoration. At each stop, he has picked up a new tip or trick from private landowners on how to restore wetlands efficiently and effectively. Budd, his son, daughter, wife and old retired duck-dog live in Sangamon County.


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