Illinois Department of Natural Resources
February 2022
February 1, 2022
Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Wildlife Research News

By Kathy Andrews Wright

Matching Data with Resource Issues

Collaboration between conservation managers and scientists studying birds forms the best outcomes on bird conservation issues. Called translational ecology, the involved parties commit to sharing their knowledge and forming a long-term collaboration. According to Dr. Auriel Fornier, director of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Forbes Biological Station, this approach is especially applicable for issues having opposing viewpoints, such predator management, and the impact of wind turbines on birds. This process was also used in the creation of the coalition Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives.

Forest Conservation May Boost Bumblebees

A scene from a lush green spring woodland.
Photo by Uros Marjanovic.

Twenty-two years of vegetative survey data collected by Illinois Natural History Survey researchers is being used to understand plants occurring within endangered rusty patch bumble bee habitats.

John Mola, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, led a study to review the long-term data on floral resources on 262 privately owned areas throughout Illinois. Researchers found a loss in forest cover and decline in flower availability within forests for both general bumblebees and the rusty patch, but not much of a decline in plant richness in forests. Grassland flowers have been on the rise since 1997, which is attributed to habitat conservation programs that tend to focus on grasslands, yet the total area of grassland in Illinois declined due to the spread of development and cropland.

Learn more about this research by reading the paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Whip-poor-wills Prefer Mixed Forests

A Journal of Wildlife Management paper summarizes a U.S. Forest Service study that found that the eastern whip-poor-will prefers forests having a mixture of open spaces and closed canopy areas. The range of the whip‐poor‐will has declined 50 percent in the past few decades, and today the whip-poor-will is a Species of Greatest Concern in 32 states, including Illinois.

During the study, whip-poor-wills were most common in forests with approximately 60 square feet of trees per acre of forest, where some trees had been removed but others were left standing. Such management encourages diverse vegetation, including tall trees and shrubs. The diverse age structure of managed forests likely benefits whip-poor-wills and other species, including chestnut-sided warblers and cerulean warblers, by mimicking natural forests that have a mixture of open patches and covered canopy.

American Public Helps Detect Invasive Pests

A green and brown emerald ash borer rests on a leaf it has been eating.
Photo by Debbie Miller, USDA Forest Service,

study published in Conservation Science and Practice summarized research to determine how government agencies, local extension specialists, researchers and members of the public have helped identify invasive pests, including the emerald ash borer. Reviewing forms completed by USDA-APHIS staff, it was revealed that 27 to 60 percent of invasive species detections were made by the public, 32 to 56 percent by government agencies and 8 to 17 percent by researchers and extension personnel. The public was the primary source for detecting invasive pests on private land. Other high-impact pests detected by the public included the Asian giant hornet and the spotted lanternfly.

Climate Change and Mammals

To look at how changing climate impacts the entire life cycle of mammals and other taxa, researchers combed through literature on 5,728 terrestrial mammal species to see if the effects on these species was being thoroughly studied. Their review is published in the Journal of Animal Ecology.

Only 106 of the studies reviewed looked quantitatively at the impacts of climate change on mammals in terms of survival and reproduction. Researchers noted that studies not considering the entire lifecycle may not account for how species are adapting to changing conditions and that species in areas most impacted by climate change were studied less. Researchers recommend more long-term research into the effects of climate change, especially in areas where its effects are most obvious.

The New Face of Hunting

Journal of Wildlife Management publication reported that the next generation of hunters in the U.S. will be more diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity. Between 2018 and 2020 researchers polled 17,203 undergraduate college students at public universities in 22 states. Of the students/potential hunters, those having no hunting experience but an interest in trying were 47% female; 38% identified as Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian, American Indian or other; 43% came from urban hometowns; and 74% had no immediate family members who hunt. A review of college workshops aimed at nonhunters found promising results in developing an understanding and appreciation of hunting, and recognition of its role in wildlife management. Many participants noted an interest in obtaining ethically sourced meat. 

During the winter, a bright red cardinal on the left and a tan, brown wren on the right perch on a bird feeder and eat bird seeds. In the background is a tree trunk and a snowy landscape.
Photo by Greg Sabin.

Birds Not Reliant on Feeders

study published in the Journal of Avian Biology reveals that backyard birdfeeders are not causing birds to develop an unhealthy reliance on feeders for food. Black-capped chickadees were tagged with RFID chips and results showed that they did not rely on birdfeeders in the area. 

Birds Practice Kleptotrichy

During a spring 2009 bird count in an Illinois state park, University of Illinois scientists witnessed a tufted titmouse plucking fur off a dozing, unbothered raccoon. This practice has been dubbed ‘kelptotrichy,’ which derives from the Greek words for “to steal” and “hair.” Why do birds harvest mammal hair? Perhaps for its insulating properties or to confuse potential predators. Learn more about what researchers found after an extensive literature review, and YouTube search, in the July 27 online edition of Ecology. 

Extreme Winter Weather May Affect Bird Populations

Results of a study published in Ecography note how extreme winter events, from cold snaps to heat waves, has affected 41 common North American bird species. Included in the study were how birds reacted to the January 2014 polar vortex as well as a December 2015 heat wave. Some birds abandoned the area, or became less active, during the polar vortex while bird abundance and occurrence increased for a period after the December heat wave.

Wildlife Reactions to Toxic Algal Blooms 

Researchers at the University of Toledo have published a study in Science of the Total Environment showing that toxic algal blooms could stress wildlife. In some cases toxic algal blooms have weakened the immune systems of reptiles and birds in the Great Lakes region. The study areas were two wetland areas—Lake Erie before an algae bloom and a smaller, shallower lake where a bloom had occurred. Blood samples were drawn from barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, northern watersnakes and painted turtles residing in those wetlands. From the wetland where the algae bloom had occurred only the painted turtles did not exhibit signs of stress. Regarding the immune systems of animals tested, the birds showed no difference and the watersnakes had stronger immune function. 

A tan, gray, and black bobcat sits on a fallen log.
Photo by Gary Kramer, USFWS.

Coyotes and Bobcats Coexist

A study of competition between coyotes and bobcats conducted by researchers at Ohio University found that bobcats were not excluded from areas at a population level. While coyotes might outcompete bobcats given their larger body size, the competition did not inhibit sharing of the landscape. Researchers reported that coyotes and bobcats, in general, seem to coexist relatively well. Learn more by reviewing the research published in Mammal Review.

Tracking Endangered Bats Across Indiana Forests

Research published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management summarized a study to find the most compatible forest management and logging techniques for areas where endangered Indiana bats and threatened northern long-eared bats exist. The study found that the logging methods used in the forest were either neutral to bats or possibly somewhat positive.

Reducing Aviation Bird Strikes

Two programs within the USDA Wildlife Services collaborated on a study to test wildlife repellents at airports in nine states in an attempt to reduce bird strikes and human-wildlife conflicts in airport environments. The study used the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered repellent Flight Control Max, which contains the active ingredient anthraquinone, a naturally occurring compound found in many plants. When eaten, anthraquinone causes nonlethal, digestive upset meant to deter subsequent feeding behavior. Trials conducted at four airports found repellency in Canada geese, sandhill cranes and several small birds, but no repellency in eastern meadowlarks or migratory mourning doves. Trials are continuing this winter, with additional research slated at airports in 2022 and 2023.

A gray squirrel pauses while climbing up a tree. In the foreground is green leafy vegetation.
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams.

Do Gray Squirrels Eat Plastics?

Students at Concordia College’s campus in northwestern Minnesota noticed gray squirrels foraging in garbage cans and wondered how much plastic they could be ingesting. Radio-collared squirrels were observed to study their interactions with plastic sources on the campus. The gastrointestinal tracts of dead squirrels, and squirrels harvested by hunters in rural areas, were examined. Rural squirrels contained a slightly higher average number of microplastics than campus squirrels, demonstrating the impact of plastics throughout the environment. The research was presented at The Wildlife Society’s virtual annual conference.

Wildlife-Human Disturbance Evaluated During COVID-related Lockdowns 

The reduction of traffic throughout North America that resulted with the COVID-19 lockdowns provided researchers at the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Manitoba the opportunity to look at human disturbances on wildlife at a large scale. Utilizing eBird citizen science data, researchers analyzed 4.3 million bird records submitted between 2017 and 2020. The paper was published in Science Advances.

Comparing bird numbers before and after the lockdowns, they found that 80 percent of the species studied changed their habitat use during the lockdown, with most increasing in abundance in urban areas and nearer highways than in previous years. Some birds decreased their use of human altered landscapes, including red-tailed hawks which moved away from major roads during the lockdown, perhaps because of a decrease in roadkill.

The researchers note that their work shows how sensitive even common species are to human activity and the importance of dealing with vehicular traffic issues.

A dragonfly with ombre clear to yellow wings perches on the end of a stick. Green leaves and berries are in the foreground.
Photo by Sam Stukel, USFWS.

Climate Change Impacts Dragonflies

A postdoctoral fellow at the Living Earth Collaborative at Washington University in St. Louis is studying dragonfly species to learn how their mating-related traits might be adapting to climate change. Overall, dragonfly males have dark coloration on their wings that is used to attract mates. The dark color also absorbs more heat and sunlight. Researchers examined photos of dragonfly wings submitted by citizen scientists to the iNaturalist app. The evidence found less pigment in the wings of male dragonflies in warmer climates, and that there was less pigment in warm years. The team anticipates that climate change will cause dragonflies to continue to lose their coloration as a mechanism for living in a warmer climate. The impact on breeding remains a question for further investigation. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Invasive Plants Pushing Out Native Flora 

A study published in Nature Communications summarizes the first global analysis of plant diversity. Researchers report that the world’s flora is growing increasingly uniform. The research shows that the spread and naturalization of non-native plants is destroying—and will continue to destroy—the uniqueness of ecosystems. One noted example is the feral blackberries that have reduced the habitat of at least 47 threatened species in Australia. This analysis roughly estimates of how much homogeneity has already occurred among flowering plants, but researcher note that more research is needed to determine how uniform the entire biosphere has become. And why.

Salamander-eating Carnivorous Plants 

A reddish, brown and green plant with a tube like projection rests against green sphagnum moss and vegetation.
Photo by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, USFWS.

A study published in the journal Ecology reports research of bog-dwelling northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) containing live spotted salamanders—the first time this behavior had been documented. Over about a 45-day period in the late summer and early fall, the team of researchers found juvenile spotted salamanders in approximately 20 percent of the plants inventoried. Many plants had more than one salamander. Digestion of these vertebrates is thought to provide the plants with a nutrient-rich food source. 

Why are the salamanders appearing inside pitcher plants? Perhaps they were looking for an easy insect meal or were seeking shelter. Consumption of a larger-than-normal prey item could result in the death of the plant as the meal could rot before being fully digested. Additional research will be undertaken to further study this phenomenon. 

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.