The Story of the Canary in the Coal Mine

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Fort Sheridan Forest Preserves environmental diversity supports rare species like this Le Conte's Sparrow.

Just as we discovered a study showing how bird diversity can be used as a surrogate measure for residential property value, we’ve learned of an exciting bird finding at the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve. While conducting the annual Christmas Bird Count, a contingent of expert birders identified the presence of a Le Conte’s Sparrow and a Henslow’s Sparrow.

First the Bird Science

Neither of these birds is common at any time of year. But both are first EVER records for the Evanston-Northshore Christmas Bird Count since it began its annual survey in the early 1900’s. The Henslow’s Sparrow, on the list of Federally endangered species, represents the 3rd record on an Illinois Christmas Bird Count EVER (the other 2 were in 1950-51 and 1964-65).

So What? Who Cares?

Remember the history of bringing canaries into coal mines as an early-warning air quality alert system? Birds are indicators of environmental quality. Today we are mostly confronted with endangered and extinct species largely due to habitat loss and environmental degradation. To learn that rare species – of almost any kind – are newly found is a testament to the prospect of environmental rehabilitation.

Minimal Investment. Huge Return

In the few short years since the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve has undergone minimal land management, the prairie savanna some would prefer to know as the 5th through 9th hole of a golf course, has become a Mecca for nesting and migrating bird wildlife. There are some who see in this savanna of quick-growing rye and Black-eyed Susan, planted to stabilize the soil, merely a weed field. But they are wrong.

Home – For All Of Us

To some bird species it is home and others merely a relatively safe way station on a longer journey. But to us it is even more important. The presence and increase in bird life at Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve tells us the “canaries in the coal mine” are well and even thriving – a trending indicator of the kind of quality environment in which we hope to live.

It’s a good thought to go into 2012 when the future of the Lake County Forest Preserve – and the quality and diversity of our environment – is to be determined.

Thanks to Christmas Bird Count participants Ari Rice, Geoff and Chris Williamson and Sulli Gibson for their field work that made this post possible.

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3 thoughts on “The Story of the Canary in the Coal Mine

  1. I agree that the open land is a very attractive feature of the Town of Fort Sheridan community. As a resident of the Town of Fort Sheridan, I see that homes on my street sell. With decreasing interest in golf, building a course would be like buying a stock that is sliding into decline. Openland is the wave of the future and the key to sustained property value.

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