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Beastly weather poses a challenge for local wildlife

AliciSeghi wildlife keeper Willowbrook Wildlife Center Glen Ellyn feeds robflight cage Friday July 20 2012. The robalong with 160 other

Alicia Seghi, a wildlife keeper at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn feeds a robin in a flight cage on Friday, July 20, 2012. The robin, along with 160 other animals, were brought to the center following the big storms over the past month. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Have you been wondering where all the squirrels are this year?

It could be the heat — and the winter.

Steve Sullivan, lead investigator of Project Squirrel, a nationwide squirrel study that is based in Chicago, said that normally a large number of squirrels will die in the winter either from the cold or from starvation. This past winter, however, most of them survived. As a result, the young litters are facing competition with older and stronger squirrels.

“I suspect what has happened is that all of the spring babies died and a good number of last year’s squirrels have died,” Sullivan said. “We had a weird winter that is going to influence our summer numbers, and then we had a summer drought that is going to influence the next three generations of squirrels.”

The triple-digit temperatures that have hit the Chicago area in recent weeks may have also hurt the animal’s population. Squirrels are especially sensitive to warm weather and are prone to overheating.

Chicago Wildlife News

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Updated: August 26, 2012 6:03AM

If this summer’s weather is getting to you, consider this: at least you don’t live outside.

Humans are ill-equipped to manage the rigors of climatological extremes such as the high temperatures and scarce rainfall that have predominated in the Midwest this summer. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are among the common side effects we experience during periods of hot, dry days. The area’s wildlife is feeling the heat, too.

“The heat is having an impact, and the drought is having an impact as far as the insects go,” said Bob Spitzer, who helps coordinate field trips for the DuPage Birding Club. “A lot of these birds live on bugs, so they’re having a hard time.”

But even if they’re stressed, animals typically can’t be helped much by those of us who lack fur, feathers and fins.

“They’re fine on their own. They really are,” said Jack MacRae, a naturalist at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. “Some of them have trouble in the heat and drought, but it’s nature.”

Although people sometimes feel compelled to try to provide relief for wild critters, it isn’t recommended.

“We always say don’t try and feed or give water to animals. They don’t need our help,” MacRae said.

That doesn’t mean we can never help them, though. After June closed out with a pair of extraordinary wind storms, the wildlife facility took in more than 150 injured and orphaned animals — mostly baby robins, MacRae said — and returned many more to their natural habitats. For very small woodland creatures, that extra help can be a life saver.

“That tends to be a lot of the calls that we end up receiving after a big storm,” said Joanne Aul, supervisor of Naperville’s Animal Control department.

Usually, employees from the department return displaced young birds to their nests, or to wooden boxes crafted to take their place if the bird family’s home was wiped out in a major weather event. If necessary, they take the wounded animals to the Willowbrook center.

It’s a “complete myth,” MacRae said, that female animals will abandon their young if they have had human contact. If its injuries don’t look very severe, go ahead and set that tiny, pre-flight bird gently back in the nest.

“Mom is still going to take care of them,” MacRae said. “Mom robins don’t have a sense of smell, so it’s not like they’re going to abandon their babies if they’ve been touched by humans.”

If the nest sustained significant damage, a surrogate home can be fashioned out of a margarine tub or similar container. The wildlife center offers how-to’s for doing that at

Robins are among the animals sometimes challenged by long dry spells. Their dietary staple, earthworms, remain far below ground, lacking the reason they surface on a drizzly day. The situation is different for those that hanker for bugs — or at least it was.

“The nice warm spring that we had probably increased insect populations, and that helped the animals that eat insects,” MacRae said. “But then it’s been a drought, so now they need water.”

The convergence of early spring and extreme summer have tricked some populations into believing the season has stretched considerably farther than the current date on the calendar. Sandpipers and yellow legs, two groups of migratory fowl, are assessing the receding shorelines and jumping the gun on their usual flight plans.

“We’re getting shore birds moving north,” MacRae said. “They do look for shallow waters and exposed mud, and those areas may be more plentiful.”

The local coyote population is on the rise, and the weather may be changing behavior a bit. However, the decreasingly shy wild dogs’ inherent curiosity about all things human could be bringing them a fringe benefit — beyond a suburban survival rate that is nearly twice the 30 percent level the species experiences annually in the wild, according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources data.

“They’re just looking for someplace that has shelter, food and water,” Aul said.

She is relieved that those of us who live with coyotes’ domesticated cousins have apparently grown wiser about the potentially deadly nature of a car’s interior on hot days. The department has been receiving far fewer requests for animal well-being checks than were coming in when the mercury first began to climb in the spring.

“Since it got extremely hot, I’m thankful that more people aren’t taking their pets with them,” Aul said. “Because the usual call is about animals left in cars.”

For the most part, their wild counterparts will survive the heat and drought, too. Ultimately, however, it’s inevitable that some will perish if significant rain doesn’t come and the mercury continues to soar. The way MacRae sees it, it’s only natural.

“That’s the way of the world,” he said.

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