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Where the Wild Things Are: A Field Guide to Our Urban Fauna

Seth Magle of the Urban Wildlife Institute at Lincoln Park Zoo helps us identify the animals that live among us.

Coyote

Coyote

Scientific Name:Canis latrans

Population:More than 4,000 in Cook County, twice as many as in 2011

Where to Spot Them:Almost everywhere. A youngster scrambled up to a roof in Austin last fall.

Diet:Squirrels, rats, your leftover Chinese takeout, unlucky little dogs—you name it, they eat it, so keep an eye on your pets.

Natural Fact:“Ten years ago, people freaked out seeing one,” says Magle. “Now they’re part of the urban landscape.” Like raccoons, they have turned nocturnal to elude human contact. Another way they’ve adapted? They look both ways before crossing the street.

 

Black-Crowned Night Heron

Black-Crowned Night Heron

Scientific Name:Nycticorax nycticorax

Population:200 to 600, depending on the year

Where to Spot Them:Around Lincoln Park Zoo’s South Pond and near the entrance to its children’s zoo. (Watch for poop! The zoo had to put up signs to help visitors avoid a pelting.)

Diet:Fish, frogs, lizards, and mice

Natural Fact:You’ll rarely find this sturdy two-pounder in Illinois—unless you’re at the zoo. They’re not in cages, though: The birds, listed as endangered since 1977, naturally nest there. A dozen or so even stick it out for the winter.

 

Striped Skunk

Striped Skunk

Scientific Name:Mephitis mephitis

Population:Wildlife control captured 13,000 in 2016, an increase of 40 percent from a decade earlier

Where to Spot Them:Name a nabe, they’re spraying it.

Diet:Berries, roots, and insects

Natural Fact:The sole skunk species in Chicago is enjoying a serious upsurge, thanks in part to warmer winters and more prosperous homeowners, who create nicer lawns for skunk treats—that is, grubs. Believe it or not, Pepé Le Pew cartoons aren’t quite accurate: Skunks do like getting frisky—but they’d never be content with just one paramour.

 

Kirtland’s Warbler

Kirtland’s Warbler

Scientific Name:Setophaga kirtlandii

Population:Scarce—just the occasional visitor

Where to Spot Them:Montrose Harbor, if you’re very, very lucky

Diet:Berries and insects

Natural Fact:Birders were ecstatic in 2015 upon spotting this lemon-breasted songster, one of the most endangered species in North America, at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. Only the male sings, often wagging its tail as it does.

 

Red Fox

Red Fox

Scientific Name:Vulpes vulpes

Population:Unknown

Where to Spot Them:They’ve been spied from Lincoln Park to Ravenswood. (One even took a wrong turn onto the Kennedy.)

Diet:Rabbits, mice, rats, birds—pretty much any small critter, plus fruit and grass

Natural Fact:Few realize Chicago hosts a smackdown between gray and red foxes. The red has gained the upper paw—for now. Both species, says Magle, are on the losing end of a competition with coyotes, which beat them out for food.

 

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Scientific Name:Bubo scandiacus

Population:A few dozen in the city during winter

Where to Spot Them:Try Montrose Harbor and other parks along the lakefront.

Diet:Small rodents, gulls, and ducks

Natural Fact:More than 500 of these white-winged raptors were spotted in Illinois last year—the most ever recorded by eBird, a crowdsourced website run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Experts called it an “invasion,” with owls found perching everywhere from Midway Airport to a billboard in Lake View.

 

Bat

Bat

Scientific Name:Chiroptera

Population:Seven species in Chicago—with progeny too numerous to count

Where to Spot Them:The tiny bird you saw dive-bombing your backyard the other night? It was probably a bat. They’re everywhere.

Diet:Bugs

Natural Fact:Bats are such providential friends—some consume up to 6,000 insects a night—that the Forest Preserve District of Will County is launching a Citizen Science Bat Monitoring Program this spring to count the natural pest controllers. Volunteers carrying handheld bat detectors will scour the woods and collect data that aids in conservation.

 

Mink

Mink

Scientific Name:Neovison vison

Population:Marginal

Where to Spot Them:The Salt Creek Greenway Trail in Elmhurst

Diet:Anything they can catch, especially muskrats

Natural Fact:Not many would suspect that these aggressive carnivores roam among us—but they do. (Though rumors that their population boomed after activists “liberated” 2,000 from a Wisconsin mink farm have been exaggerated.) Don’t confuse these aquatic beasts with playful, similarly lithe otters: Mink prefer solitude and team up only during breeding season.

 

Ribbon Snake

Ribbon Snake

Scientific Name:Thamnophis sauritus

Population:Unknown

Where to Spot Them:Your yard—they burrow anywhere with leaf litter and vegetation. They’re more obvious in spring, when they come out of hibernation.

Diet:Worms, slugs, and mice

Natural Fact:As any herpetologist will tell you, there are no venomous snakes in Chicago, just helpful insect eaters like this one and its cousin, the garter snake. That news didn’t soothe shaken Naperville residents in 2014 when they reported an onslaught of the slithery sliders.

 

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

Scientific Name:Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Population:Chicago numbers are unknown, but there are more than 3,000 statewide.

Where to Spot Them:Busse Woods, near O’Hare, and Lake Calumet, where observers spotted 14 on one afternoon last year

Diet:Fish, mammals, and reptiles

Natural Fact:Only Alaska tops Illinois for its wintering population of our national bird. The colder it is up north, the more eagles opt for the unfrozen rivers of Chicagoland to hunt for dinner.

 

Monk Parakeet

Monk Parakeet

Scientific Name:Myiopsitta monachus

Population:More than 700

Where to Spot Them:Once exclusive to Hyde Park, they’re now far more common in the southern and western suburbs.

Diet:Fruit, seeds, and berries

Natural Fact:Indigenous to South America, monk parakeets were first sighted in Hyde Park in 1973 and were likely escaped pets that got frisky, spawning a local population. A recent decline in numbers is blamed variously on peregrine falcons and ComEd linemen.

 

Cougar

Cougar

Scientific Name:Puma concolor

Population:Just a handful of interlopers—for now. More young males might eventually roam down from overcrowded west-central Wisconsin.

Where to Spot Them:There’s no go-to place in Chicago—yet.

Diet:Small animals of all types

Natural Fact:Rare but unsettling to nervous bipeds, several cougars have turned up along the lake or at a homeowner’s back door. One was shot in a Roscoe Village alley, and you’ll occasionally hear of unconfirmed sightings on the North Shore.

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