Here’s an amazing fact: Cook County is the most biodiverse county in the entire state of Illinois. That means there are plants and animals in the areas that surround Chicago that you won’t see anywhere else in the state. In part, this is because of theForest Preserves of Cook County, says Raquel Garcia-Alvarez, stewardship program coordinator.
“We are one of the largest forest preserve systems in the whole nation, and we have existed for more than 100 years — that’s older than the National Parks,” she says. “Within the Forest Preserves of Cook County there are nearly 70,000 acres of protected land, and that’s strategic. It means these special, rare ecosystems are protected.”
No matter where you live or work in Cook County, there’s a forest preserve close by, and Garcia-Alvarez encourages everyone to make visiting the Forest Preserves of Cook County part of your daily or weekly routine. Your local forest preserve is a great place to learn about the wildlife — the birds, animals, plants and insects — that thrive in these natural habitats.
“When people think of nature, they might not consider a forest preserve to have wildlife,” she says. “For a lot of people, seeing wildlife means going to Michigan or Wisconsin — or even out west. But it’s right here, on this trail, close to home.”
Birds, mammals, plants, fish, insects…
When Garcia-Alvarez visits a preserve, she scans the sky and the treetops for her favorite bird of prey, the kestrel. “They are small and mighty birds, probably no bigger than about 8 inches,” she says. “But they are adaptive and have wonderful coloring of orange and blue. Because they are a small size, people may not think they are great hunters, but they prey on lizards, insects and voles. Watching them hunt up close is very majestic.”
Garcia-Alvarez marvels at how kestrels and cedar waxwings, another favorite bird, thrive in the Forest Preserves of Cook County because they are able to find plenty of food in the natural surroundings. “The cedar waxwings have a band of black around their eyes like they are wearing a mask, but their coloring also makes them look like they are wearing a fresh-pressed suit,” she says. “They look put together.”
The climate of the region invites birds and other species that travel seasonally between colder northern regions and warmer southern regions of North America. “We are part of the Mississippi flyway and in the springtime, you can visit the preserves and see birds coming from Mexico and the Caribbean to spend the warmer months here or in Canada,” Garcia-Alvarez says.
Many ways to experience wildlife
Families who are looking to maximize their wildlife sightings can walk or hike around any of the preserves that have a body of water, Garcia-Alvarez suggests. “Eggers Grove on Chicago’s Southeast Side or Skokie Lagoons in northern Cook County are both great places to go. Where you see water, you will see birds, but you’ll also see frogs and turtles during the summer,” she says. Maple Lake near Willow Springs offers paddling opportunities for an even closer look.
“Canoeing and kayaking give you a different perspective and a chance to look at the surroundings a little differently,” she says, adding that there’s nothing like spotting a great blue heron at Schiller Woods-South in Schiller Park.
While you’re hiking, you may just see a coyote, a mammal that looks a little like a dog and a little like a wolf. “The coyote is a favorite because they are so adaptive,” Garcia-Alvarez says, adding that they can pop up when you least expect them, even in the parking lot. “I’ve seen them at all times of the day, but it usually has to be pretty quiet for them to come out.”
Observing from a distance is the best way to react to a coyote sighting, according to Garcia-Alvarez. “When you keep your distance, you can tell so much more about an animal because you get a wider scope. Where did it come from and why is it going where it’s going?” she says, adding that by watching animals, you can learn a lot about the paths they take to seek their resources, like food or water — and, if you get too close, you may impact the animal’s ability to get what it needs.
Families can learn so much about the animals they might see at the Forest Preserves of Cook County at one of six Nature Centers, located in all corners of the county. There, you can talk with an expert naturalist with insight into many of the animals, plants and insects you can see at the preserves.
“You can learn about the many types of owls, hawks and turkey vultures and there are native animals to see there,” Garcia-Alvarez says. While the Forest Preserves of Cook County Nature Centers are not wildlife rehabilitation centers, they are home to some ambassador animals that were injured and now unable to live in the wild. These ambassador animals help nature center visitors learn about the native animals of Cook County.
The more you learn about wildlife, the more you will notice the nature all around you — in your backyard, in the neighborhood park and in the school playground. The Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Conservation@Home program encourages families to learn more about native landscaping to create at-home environments for native birds, insects and mammals to visit. The program is available to individual yards and gardens, schools and community spaces in Cook County.
Whether you incorporate wildlife-friendly practices at home or not, the Forest Preserves of Cook County are always available to enjoy year-round.
“Nature is something you can enjoy more often than just on special occasions, like a yearly family picnic,” she says. “You can just take an hour to go to your nearest Forest Preserves of Cook County site and breathe in some fresh air and look at some birds, plants or insects. It can be part of your daily routine.”
Learn more about the Forest Preserves of Cook County and plan your own visit on the interactive web map at fpdcc.com.