Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Urban Ecology in Illinois


When one thinks of ecology or ecosystems, the first thought to come to mind may be dramatic, sweeping habitats, such as vast stands of tallgrass prairie plants, river-bottom forests of cypress and tupelo, or the rugged ecosystems associated with canyons and bluffs--all places that conjure up the sense of "somewhere else." All three of these habitats can be found within the boundaries of Illinois-- the Midewin tallgrass prairie near Joliet, to the Cache River floodplain forests of southern Illinois, to the canyons and bluffs of Apple River Canyon and the Mississippi Palisades. But ecology isn't restricted to pristine habitats or "somewhere else." Sometimes ecology happens in our own backyard or in places that might be unexpected--such as large urban areas.

The greater Chicago area is one such area in Illinois. Encompassing much of the six counties in the northeastern part of the state, greater than 200,000 acres of habitats are protected. Many of these habitats exist in Illinois only within the greater Chicago area, and others are well represented within that array of protected sites. The term "Chicago Wilderness"--a partnership of over 60 public and private organizations--is not an oxymoron. Instead, it reflects the fact that there are thriving areas within the greater urban and suburban setting, sheltering nearly 200 plants and animals that are listed as threatened or endangered in the state, and that numerous organizations in the state care about the ecology of urban areas and the species they contain.


View of Chicago looking north from Calumet Sag Channel toward Loop.


Although there are many beneficial ecological interactions in urban and suburban settings, those areas also are often so disturbed that they are prone to ecological problems--whether the disappearance of habitats or degradation of them due to human activities, or just the proximity of urban areas to other habitats. For example, aquatic areas near cities are home to mosquitoes that can carry diseases, such as West Nile encephalitis that occurred in New York last year. Disturbed urban forests and aquatic habitats have been ripe for invasions by exotic plants, such as garlic mustard or purple loosestrife; exotic aquatic organisms, such as round gobies and zebra mussels; or exotic insects, such as Asian longhorned beetles or gypsy moths. Invasions of urban areas are not limited solely to exotic species: our backyards, forest preserves, and other green areas have been invaded by more familiar species, such as Canada Geese and white-tailed deer.

In this issue of Illinois Natural History Survey Reports, we highlight ongoing INHS research and outreach projects that can be collected under the umbrella of "urban ecology." Survey scientists from all disciplines are studying the interactions of plants and animals in urban and suburban habitats. The studies reported here range from particular species to habitats to entire ecosystems. The report on energy and resource use and the "ecological footprint" of urban areas illustrates a crucial concept for long-term urban planning and "smart growth" of our state. A report on the wise and perhaps paradoxical development and restoration of wild and natural areas in the Calumet area of southeastern Chicago illustrates how once-maligned and abused habitats can remain vital and even be restored, as long as they are not paved and fragmented.

Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) in parking lot at Champaign, IL.

Northeastern Illinois is the remaining stronghold in the state for the endangered Yellow-headed Blackbird. Suburban housing and office-park developments with appropriate wetlands may provide significant habitat for this colorful avian marsh dweller. Other wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, have benefited from the extensive urban forest preserve systems, vastly increasing deer populations. As reported here, deer can cause habitat degradation and even harm to humans by colliding with autos and by hosting the tick vectors of Lyme and other human diseases. Yet, controlling deer populations in an ecologically sustainable manner brings habitat managers into conflict with urban humans.

The extensive aquatic areas near urban habitats--many urban areas are situated on lakes or rivers due to trade--provide environmental recreation, but also potential environmental nightmares due to exotic invaders. The invaders also threaten the extensive urban forest, as the article about Asian longhorned beetles attests. Even landscape plantings and home gardens are subjects of ecological studies and outreach--studies that can enhance the health of landscape plants that provide shade and other benefits to homeowners and outreach that teaches gardeners about ways to reduce use of pesticides in their own backyards.

While this issue may seem to vary from the usual presentation of studies of wild and natural places in Illinois, we hope you recognize that these ongoing research and outreach efforts are valuable additions to the understanding of an increasingly significant part of the Illinois landscape. Far from oxymoronic, the issue of urban ecology is alive and an important part of the Survey's mission, and crucial to the wise use of the state's natural resources.

Robert N. Wiedenmann, Center for Economic Entomology

 Charlie Warwick, editor

Illinois Natural History Survey

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