Coyote Returns to Columbus Park!

When we first started birding at Columbus Park almost four years ago, Coyotes were year-round residents in the Park. We used to find their tracks crossing the snow-covered golf course, and we sometimes saw the Coyotes if we arrived early in the morning. Some folks even said they had seen a Coyote den in the Park.

Then about 14 months ago, Coyotes disappeared from the Park. The last time I saw one there was December 18, 2008. So, I was very pleased this morning when I saw a Coyote just standing there in the middle of the golf course:

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.
The Coyote was just standing there in the middle of Columbus Park golf course.

I only had the Sony DSC-H50 camera, with its 15 times zoom, so my photos only hint at how beautiful it was:

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.
The Coyote kept an eye me and everything else that moved or made noise around the edges of the golf course.
Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.
I tried to sneak closer by walking up behind the golf-course sanctuary prairie, but no such luck. When I peeked around the dried wildflowers, it was gone.

So, what’s a Coyote going to eat in Columbus Park? This past summer and fall we saw lots more Cottontail Rabbits than usual, and there are still lots of Gray and Fox Squirrels in the Park. Also, the snow is melting, and small flocks of Canada Geese have been returning to feed on exposed grass. Later this spring there may be 500 or more geese visiting the Park each day. For a lighter snack, there are often 40 or 50 Mourning Doves roosting on the south sides of wooded areas. Today they were just sitting on the ground, soaking up the sunlight. If all else fails, there’s usually something edible in the trash bins near the food bank, and some folks scatter bread to feed the wildlife.

So, it seems an enterprising Coyote could make a life for itself in this Chicago city park. We’ll see if this one sticks around.


For lots more information about the Coyotes that live in the Chicago area, check out The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project: Urban Coyote Ecology and Management.

More Great Horned Owl Pellets at Columbus Park

It’s been a busy month at work, but this morning, for the first time in two weeks, I monitored birds at Columbus Park. I saw 13 species of birds, including a Red-tailed Hawk whose tail was a mix of banded juvenile feathers and bright red adult feathers. However, I did not see the on-again-off-again Great Horned Owl who sometimes roosts in an oak tree on the west side of the Park. (Read about it here.)

I always enjoy seeing the owl, but when the owl’s gone I’m not too sad, because then I can search for owl pellets under its roosting tree. The pellets I’ve found so far (shown in this post) contained a mix of medium and small mammal bones, but no teeth. So I figured the owl was feeding on squirrel, rabbit, or maybe possum-sized mammals. Since I can’t often identify bones to species, I was really hoping to find some owl pellets with teeth or jar bones, which I often can identify. Today I lucked out:

Great Horned Owl pellets, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2010
Pellets spit out by the Great Horned Owl who sometimes roosts in Columbus Park. The large, snow-crusted pellet on the right includes a lower jaw. (Taken with my iPhone.)

Here’s a closer look at the jaw:

Owl pellet with rabbit jaw, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2010
I dug the jaw out of the frozen pellet so I could see the teeth. With the front gnawing teeth and grinding cheek teeth exposed, I recognized it as the mandible (lower jaw) of a Cottontail Rabbit. (Taken with my iPhone.)

Go here to see a photo of a complete Cottontail Rabbit skull with mandible.

This fall we had lots more rabbits than normal in Columbus Park, and I’d noticed gnawing damage to shrubs and small trees that was probably the work of rabbits. My neighbors in Oak Park had also noticed more rabbits in their yards this year and complained about damage to their gardens.  So, now there’s evidence that our Great Horned Owl is bringing the rabbit population back to normal.


Here are links to information and activities about owl pellets:

A January Walk through Columbus Park

As I monitored birds this morning in Columbus Park, I did an experiment. I took photos with my iPhone and uploaded them live to Facebook. It was kind of like a virtual nature walk!

Here the link to the public Facebook album with this morning’s photos:  A January Walk through Columbus Park.

Please let me know what you think!

A Red-tailed Hawk is Hunting the I-290 Median!

For the past three days a Red-tailed Hawk has been hunting from lamp posts at the end of our block:

Red-tailed Hawk, I-290 median, south Oak Park, Illinois, January 5, 2009.
The Red-tailed Hawk sits on lamp posts at the end of our block. The posts are in the grassy median between the east- and west-bound lanes of Interstate 290 (also called the Eisenhower Express, the Ike, or the Congress).

I first noticed the hawk on Monday while I was walking to Maze Library across the Ridgeland bridge. I saw the hawk flying from post to post, approaching me from the east. Once it got close enough, I recognized it as the pale-bellied Red-tail that I’ve seen in Columbus Park, about a mile east on the expressway:

Red-tailed Hawk, I-290 median, south Oak Park, Illinois, January 5, 2009.
The Red-tailed Hawk's chest and belly look distinctively pale compared with other local Red-tails.

A few weeks ago I watched this hawk hunting Mourning Doves behind the Refectory at Columbus Park — it failed rather miserably. On Monday the Red-tail made a pass at Pigeons roosting on the apartment building at the end of our block — another fail. Then it flew directly at the large Red Cedar in our alley where House Finches and Goldfinches roost — the small birds scattered, and the hawk was not even close to scoring a meal.

Since then, every time I see the hawk it’s sitting on a lamp post:

Red-tailed Hawk, I-290 median, south Oak Park, Illinois, January 5, 2009.
The I-290 Red-tailed Hawk in south Oak Park.

It’s always look down, at least when it’s not looking at me. It’s probably hoping for a glimpse at a potential meal — a mouse, perhaps a rat, maybe a rabbit brave enough to cross three lanes of traffic.

I hope the hawk is more successful with mammals than it is with birds. And I hope it understands the dangers of speeding cars and trucks.

Red-tailed Hawk, I-290 median, south Oak Park, Illinois, January 5, 2009.
The I-290 Red-tailed Hawk on a distant lamp post.


Red-tailed Hawks often hunt along highway right-of-ways. Here are some links that discuss this aspect of Red-tail natural history:

Our Chicago Urban Christmas Bird Count Data 2009

The boys and I spent the entire day conducting our part of the Chicago Urban Christmas Bird Count. Nationally, Christmas counts are organized by the National Audubon Society. The Chicago Urban count circle is sponsored by Evanston North Shore Bird Club and Chicago Audubon Society, with Jeff Sanders as the compiler.

Our part of the count covers the following areas in Chicago and Oak Park: Birding on foot in Columbus Park, Douglas Park, and south Oak Park residential areas; feeder watching at our home on South Elmwood in Oak Park; and driving through industrial and residential areas in between these sites.

This year, birding from sunrise to sunset, we found a total of 26 species. The highlights of our day included:

  • Four species of hawks, including a MERLIN at Columbus Park (photo below), 2 AMERICAN KESTRELS, 2 COOPER’S HAWKS, and 2 RED-TAILED HAWKS.
  • A WINTER WREN beside the Columbus Park lagoon (where we saw this species often through the fall — photo below).
  • An AMERICAN PIPIT at Columbus Park, in the same field where we saw a Pipt on December 11 (photo below).
  • A SWAMP SPARROW at Columbus Park (photo of its rump, below), plus 20 AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS (15 at Douglas, 5 at Columbus).

We were also pleased that WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES put in 2 appearances, since we’ve been seeing them much more frequently this year. We also were happy to see a BLUE JAY, because they were common this summer, then mostly disappeared within the last few weeks. We were disappointed that overall sparrow numbers were down at Douglas Park, where the golf-course sanctuary often holds 50 or 60 sparrows this late in the year. And we were very sad that we did NOT see the Great Horned Owl that had been roosting near Austin in late November and early December. (We still hope it returns in time to be registered as a count-week species!)

Here’s our entire list for today, with count numbers:

Canada Goose    280

Cooper’s Hawk     2

Red-tailed Hawk     2

American Kestrel     2

Merlin     1

Herring Gull     1

Ring-billed Gull     5

Rock Pigeon     115

Mourning Dove     45

Downy Woodpecker     4

Hairy Woodpecker     3

Blue Jay     1

American Crow     9

Black-capped Chickadee     9

White-breasted Nuthatch     2

Winter Wren     1

American Robin     55

European Starling    350

American Pipit     1

American Tree Sparrow    20

Swamp Sparrow     1

Dark-eyed Junco     25

Northern Cardinal     21

House Finch     14

American Goldfinch  30

House Sparrow     180

We also have two count-week species so far for our areas:

1 Red-bellied Woodpecker  (seen in Douglas Park 12/17/09)

2 African Collared-Dove and/or African X Eurasian Collared-Dove (seen in south Oak Park 12/18/09).  We are soliciting input on these photos, taken on Dec. 18th — what do you think they are?

Here are some of Aaron’s photos from today:

Merlin, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.
The Merlin roosted in several trees around the lagoon, but it was tough to get a good photo because of the distance and overcast skies. Note the back color, streaking on the side of the breast, and minimal patterning on the head (all of which we could see much better through our binoculars). Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.
Merlin, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.
This shot, from even further away, gives another view of the Merlin's head. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

Winter Wren, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.
Although it was hard to get a clear shot at the Winter Wren, a few times it hopped into the open, possibly to get a better look at us! Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.
American Pipit, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.
There was a large, if late, migration of American Pipits to inland parts of Chicago earlier in December. We were happy that one stuck around Columbus Park for the Christmas Count! Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.
American Pipit, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.
Here's a front-on view of the American Pipit. It was hanging out at the north end of the large ball field that fills the southeast corner of Columbus Park, sometimes visiting a seepage area that has some unfrozen water. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.
Swamp Sparrow, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.
Although we got good binocular views of the Swamp Sparrow's gray-patterned head, Aaron only got photos of its butt! Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

We’ll post links to Ethan’s photos once he gets them online.

No Owl Today, Just Fast-Frozen Owl Pellets

The neighborhood crows and I were both disappointed that we didn’t find the Great Horned Owl in its usual roosting tree in Columbus Park. Here’s what the owl looked like yesterday afternoon — the third day in a row we had seen it in exactly the same spot in a White Oak tree:

Great Horned Owl roosting in a White Oak tree, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 15, 2009.
Yesterday at 2:15 p.m. the Great Horned Owl was in its usual White Oak roost in Columbus Park.

This morning I looked at the same tree from every angle — and every tree around it — for 10 minutes and couldn’t find the owl. Then five minutes after I gave up a flock of Common Crows flew into the roosting tree and landed in its upper branches. These were tough crows! I had earlier seen them harassing first an American Kestrel and then a Red-tailed Hawk. I figured they knew something I didn’t — after all, crows first found this owl for me on November 24th. So, once the crows flew off, I went back to the roost tree and looked again.

Still, no owl.

I should have been disappointed, but I looked at the bright side. If the owl was in its roost, I would have backed off and left it alone. Since there was no owl to scare off, I could go look for owl pellets under its roost. (Owl pellets are the remains of animals that the owl ate — whole or in really big chunks. The pellet is the regurgitated remains of the owl’s meal, after the flesh and guts have been digested.)

Here’s what I found:

Great Horned Owl pellet, Columbus Park, Chicago, December 16, 2009.
The owl pellets are the fuzzy-looking gray things on top of the leaves. The gray fuzz is fur from whatever the owl ate. The white and yellowish bits embedded in the fur are bones from prey animals.

The more I looked, the more I found:

Great Horned Owl pellet, Columbus Park, Chicago, December 16, 2009.
This pellet -- about two inches across -- had more and bigger bones. When I picked it up, I saw ice crystals among the fur. When the owl spit out the pellet, it was still wet with stomach fluids. After the moist pellet hit the leaves, it froze solid.

The last pellet I found was the biggest and the boniest:

Great Horned Owl pellet, Columbus Park, Chicago, December 16, 2009.
The longest bone in this pellet is about two and a third inches long. It's a humerus, the upper bone from a front leg. I'm guessing it came from an animal bigger than a squirrel, maybe a rabbit or a small opossum or raccoon.

I saw one rodent or rabbit front tooth in a pellet, but the rest of the visible bones were from legs, feet, hips, shoulders, or backs.  I’m not good at identifying animals from their limb bones — I need to see teeth.

I guess we’ll go back at some point and dissect some of the pellets. If we find some jaws or skulls, we’ll know better what our urban owl was eating in Columbus Park.

Then we’ll wash our hands really well. After all, we’ll be handling owl vomit!


We found more owl pellets on January 31st, including one containing a rabbit jaw. You can see them here.


Here are links to information and activities about owl pellets:

Look What the Crows Found: A Great Horned Owl!

Late this morning I saw at least 14 American Crows in Columbus Park. To me that’s really great — I love crows, but their local population was decreased a few years ago by West Nile Virus. Now that they’re coming back, there’s reason for excitement — you never know quite what’s going to happen when crows are around.

The first crows I saw — a group of nine — were foraging in the woods by the lagoon. Two of them were tearing up a hornet nest. (I’ll post about that later.) They took off when they saw me, heading east and out of the Park.

The next group of crows was only five in number, but they were making lots of noise when I encountered them in the woods along Austin. At first I figured they might be looking for hornet nests — they were in the same trees where I found the nests in this blog post. But they just landed in the trees, took off again, circled over the golf course, then returned to the same trees — calling constantly. The second time they landed it was obvious that they weren’t just calling — they were calling at something. It seemed that they might be “mobbing” a hawk, so I scanned the trees with my binoculars. I thought I might find a Red-tailed or Cooper’s Hawk, which are common in the Park. Instead, this is what I saw:

Great Horned Owl, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 24, 2009.
The crows had located a Great Horned Owl -- the first owl I had ever seen in Columbus Park.

The Great Horned Owl was the very first owl I had ever seen in Columbus Park! A few minutes earlier I had walked right under that tree, scanning the surrounding tree tops as I went, but I had completely missed the owl. Good thing the crows helped me out — the owl was sleeping away the day in a White Oak tree. Oaks hold their leaves longer than the other trees in Columbus Park, and the leaves helped hide the owl from view.

I walked a little closer, taking photos as I went. I got within about 75 feet and took this shot:

Great Horned Owl, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 24, 2009.
This closer view shows the owl's tufts of feathers, which look like horns to some. It also shows the white neck band, which helps distinguish Great Horned Owls from other species with horn-like tufts.

After a few more photos, I backed away. The crows had left, and I decided to do the same. Time to let the owl get back to sleep.

I hope the crows stick around all winter and beyond. Who knows what they’ll find next time! And I hope the owl finds lots to eat tonight in Columbus Park.

Last of the Fall Wildflowers at Columbus Park?

Earlier this year Neighborhood Nature showed the earliest examples of spring flowers we could find. Now that November’s two-thirds gone, I guess it’s time to show the last wildflowers still blooming in Columbus Park. (I’ll do my best to give their names, but bear with me — I’m not a botanist!)

It was sunny and almost warm during this morning’s bird monitoring in Columbus Park. However, some parts of the Park were devoid of birds, so I had time to look down as I listened hard for any birdlike sounds. These nickle-sized flowers caught my eye — I’m pretty sure they’re Daisy Fleabane. (You can see a photo of the entire plant here.)

I'm guessing Daisy Fleabane, Columbus Park, Chicago, November 20, 2009.
Although these look like daisies, the flowers are much too small. So I think it's Daisy Fleabane.

The small patch of prairie habitat beside the lagoon held two plants in flower. The first one looked like a very small example of Queen Anne’s Lace (aslo called Wild Carrot) — the flower head was less than two inches across. (You can see a photo that shows the leaves here. Please use the comments, below, to correct me if I’m wrong.)

I think this one is Queen Anne's Lace, Columbus Park, Chicago, November 20, 2009.
This one looked like a very small example of Queen Anne's Lace (also known as Wild Carrot).

I’m also uncertain what this plant is called. I’m guessing this might be False Dragonhead, a kind of mint. Another name for this species is Obedient Plant, since if you push the flowers to one side, they stay there until you push them back. However, I forgot the try that test today, so my identification has not been physically confirmed. Also, this flower looked more pinkish in the field — I’m not sure why the photos don’t do justice to the color. (You can see a photo of the entire plant here.)

I'm guessing this is False Dragonhead, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 20, 2009.
I'm guessing this is False Dragonhead, a kind of mint. (Again, use the comments, below, to help me out!)

My final flowers were just hanging on — most of the others on this plant had gone to seed. It was a kind of thistle, found in Austin woods — but don’t ask me what kind of thistle, I wouldn’t have a clue. (Again, these looked more pinkish in the field. You can see a photo that shows some leaves here.):

Thistle flowers, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 20, 2009.
A few thistle flowers remained, but the rest had gone to seed.

“Gone to seed” is where all these flowers are bound. Food for birds, and sometimes a feast for the eyes despite the lack of color. Check out these goldenrod seeds, which may be Showy Goldenrod, one of the most beautiful of its kind. (You can see a photo that shows more of the plant here.)

Gone-to-seed goldenrod, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 20, 2009.
Even gone to seed, goldenrods are beautiful.

So, are these the last wildflowers I’ll see this year in Columbus Park? I’ll keep looking for more on future visits. (And I’ll also try to tame that possible Obedient Plant.)

Hornet Nests Now Visible in Our Neighborhood

Now that most trees have lost their leaves, we find out what was hiding in their branches all summer long. Bird and squirrel nests are suddenly visible, and hornet nests turn out to be much more common than we ever imagined. I almost never see a Bald-faced Hornet in summer, but now I’m finding their nests in many trees in Columbus Park and throughout our Oak Park neighborhood. They look like big gray basketballs silhouetted against the sky:

Hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.
Hornet nests look like big gray basketballs or balloons stuck in trees.

But when you get closer, you can see the arcs of hornet-made paper, glued by hornet “spit” to build the outer layers of the nest:

Hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.
Hornets chew up dead wood, mixing it with saliva to make their own brand of paper.

Some brave creature tore off the bottom of this nest:

Hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.
I'm hoping whoever tore into this nest waited until all the hornets were gone. (Worker hornets die off each fall, and next year's queen hornets burrow into soil or rotten logs to spend the winter in suspended animation.)

The outer layers of protective paper were torn away, exposing the inner cells — hexagonal tubes that look a bit like honeycomb:

Inside of hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.
Although the inside of a hornet nest looks like the honeycomb inside a bee hive, hornets build their entire nest with home-made paper (not beeswax).

Now, I’m not going to get all didactic and lecture you about the differences between honeybees and hornets. Let’s just say they both sting if you get too close, you’re not going to get much honey from a hornet, and honeybees won’t help control the fly population around your home. If you want to learn more, check out these online references:


One of my Facebook friends had some advice for anyone who might consider bring a hornet nest inside for the winter. Patrick wrote, “I remember, as a kid, bringing one inside before the cold had done its deed to the hornets.” In other words, wait until there have been a couple of good hard freezes to kill off any remaining hornets (or other insects) inside the nest.


P.S. Thanks to the Columbus Park walker who told me where to find the broken-open nest!

Finally, a Cute Mammal!

As part of the World Wide Web, this blog is legally and morally obligated to display photos of cute mammals at least once a quarter. However, because we show so many photos of birds and insects, we have probably fallen behind on this responsibility. Granted, we posted a photo of our kittens back in March. And many people would consider our Possum from back in February to be cute in a homely sort of way, even if you had to wade through worms and millipedes to see the cuteness. But I guess our squirrel photos tended to look either really tough, like the one from last week, or kind of demonic, because of the flash effects on their eyes.

But now, how can you say this photo of a vole from Columbus Park isn’t cute?

Who can deny that this vole is a cute, fuzzy little mammal?

It’s really round and fuzzy, right? With tiny little ears? And it eats plants? Granted the eyes are small and beady, but check this out:

The tail is really short, which mean this vole is not on of those hated house mice!
The tail (yellow arrow) is really short! That means it's not a house mouse!

If you look really close, you’ll even see some short hairs covering the tail. That’s pretty good for an urban rodent!

So, I think Neighborhood Nature has met its cuteness obligation for the fall quarter. If you disagree, then next time I go to Columbus Park I guess I’ll have to carry a tiny costume in my pocket, so I can dress our vole as a cat.


If you want to get serious about voles, you can go here or here.