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Expert: Suburban wildlife more urban than wild

Attendees including Ashley Vicek from Downers Grove with Illinois Clean Energy second from left listen as Steve Kenny with SCARCE

Attendees including Ashley Vicek, from Downers Grove, with Illinois Clean Energy, second from left, listen as Steve Kenny with SCARCE, explains different kinds of light bulbs, their uses and how much power they use at the annual Dupage Environmental Summit at Benedictine University on Wednesday, January 9, 2012. This year the summit is focusing on living with the increasing presence of non-domesticated wildlife in the area. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 12, 2013 6:10AM

A raccoon really isn’t all that concerned about straying out of a nearby forest preserve and into your backyard. If there’s something to eat there — a wriggly earthworm or a couple of acorns, even some cat food — and maybe a shady spot to curl up for a snooze come daybreak, the creature will wander right in and settle down.

Naperville and its neighboring communities are home to animals far more diverse than simple homo sapiens. Deer and foxes, coyotes and beavers, and dozens of varieties of birds all call DuPage County home, along with many other species. The peaceful coexistence of suburbanites and wildlife took the focus of the 10th annual DuPage Environmental Summit, held Wednesday afternoon at Benedictine University in Lisle.

As the suburbs have put down sturdy roots, the creatures that inhabited the open spaces before subdivisions and shopping centers filled them in have largely stuck around.

“They’ve definitely adapted. They’ve changed, to fit our way of life,” said Stephanie Touzalin, a naturalist with the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, who was among the speakers at the event.

As a result, their diets often have more variety to them than they used to. A hungry wild animal will forage in gardens, trash cans, around bird feeders — anywhere there might be a nibble that doesn’t have to be hunted down or dug up.

There are physical means homeowners can use to discourage animals intent on helping themselves to bird feeders or building nests in gutter systems. Stovepipe, particularly smeared with some petroleum jelly, often does the trick. And hardware cloth can be used to encircle trees, a favorite snack food of beavers, or inserted into the ground as a barrier for critters that burrow.

Animals also can be made to feel less welcome, Touzalin said, if their daily rhythms are interrupted. Rodents and vermin can be uprooted by noise or light, or even a Mylar balloon that resembles an eyeball. The trick is to make them feel unsafe.

“Remember, these are not ‘wild’ raccoons. They’re urban. They’re savvy,” Touzalin said. “The reason they’re using our areas is because they’ve found it’s to their advantage.”

Even more comfortable among humans are coyotes. According to Chris Anchor, a coyote expert with the Cook County Forest Preserve District, all open areas in the Chicago region have been inhabited by coyotes for at least 20 years.

“Coyotes are incredibly adaptable,” said Anchor, who described a habitat range for the species that stretches from the Arctic Circle to Central America.

At one time, he said, this region was home to mountain lions, wolves, black bears, bobcats and other carnivores, but now coyotes are the primary predators remaining in the area.

Anchor and his colleagues spent 14 years relocating coyotes from Aurora and other areas to Cook County preserves, outfitted with tags enabling the researchers to track them. Invariably they fled.

“Every single one of those animals either went back to where we found it, or died trying to get back there,” Anchor said. “We were releasing these coyotes, and they weren’t going where we wanted them to go. Somebody had to learn something, and it certainly wasn’t the coyotes.”

They did learn something from the 671 coyotes they have caught and studied. For one thing, a carbohydrate-rich human diet results in oral infection in a coyote. For another, more than half of all urban coyotes die as a result of being hit by a vehicle — most often because they have become debilitated by heartworm and are no longer able to hunt for their usual prey.

“They’re running up and down the road, picking up road kill,” Anchor said.

They’re also quite good at staying in the shadows.

“Coyotes are everywhere, including in the city,” he said, adding that in Schaumburg and Elk Grove Village, none of the coyotes dwell in forest preserves; they’re all in neighborhoods. “The vast majority of the public has no idea that they’re there.”

But there is no significant danger; according to Anchor, it’s a myth that coyotes pose a serious hazard to people.

“Typically there’s one attack, maybe two attacks in the U.S. a year,” he said. “There’s three million dog attacks every year.”

Not all wild animals are regarded as a menace, of course. Jim Kleinwachter, a land preservation specialist with the Conservation Foundation in Naperville, shared ways to encourage butterflies, birds and other desired wildlife to the yard.

“We don’t want to think about our forest preserves as a place where animals live, and our home as where people live,” Kleinwachter said. “We can have integration, and that’s a matter of planning.”

That means if you want to attract flying friends, avoid hostas, daylilies, sedum and spirea, and opt instead for milkweed, trillium and Lobelia cardinalis, which they much prefer. Beneficial wildlife has no use for turf grass, which also usurps water supplies and triggers use of harmful chemicals.

“If we convert from grass to native plants, we don’t have to do anything else. The grasshoppers will come,” Kleinwachter said. “The power of nature will take over.”

Staged by the Conservation Foundation, the DuPage County Environmental Commission and School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education, the summit is funded by the county, the Companions’ Fund of the DuPage Community Foundation and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. This year’s event, which drew nearly 300 visitors and participants, brought the first time registration had to be closed because fire code would not allow a larger crowd.

Kay McKeen, founder and executive director of SCARCE, was pleased but not surprised by the robust turnout for the annual seminar. Humans and wildlife are curious about each other, and it’s helpful for both to know how to live peacefully together.

“We are in their space,” she said. “They’re going to be here.”

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