The Barn Owl’s name sounds like it should be found just about everywhere in rural Illinois. The truth is that Barn Owl (Tyto alba) numbers declined so precipitously by the 1960s that they landed on the Illinois list of threatened or endangered species. In recent years, however, the Barn Owl has made a comeback.
It’s a story that was disturbingly familiar at the turn of the 20th Century. The Carolina Parakeet once was found in abundance throughout the eastern and Midwestern United States. The parrot with the northern-most distribution, the colorful and noisy Carolina Parakeet was hard to miss when it gathered in large flocks. By the late 19th century it was rare. By the early 20th century it was virtually extinct, with the last known individual dying in captivity in 1918.
While the American Bald Eagle was getting all the attention for its comeback in the lower 48 states, another bird of prey was quietly making a comeback of its own. The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), a fish-eating hawk, has also benefitted from some of the same legal protections and conservation measures that have assisted the Bald Eagle. The Osprey has a white head with a dark eye stripe. It hunts by folding its wings and making a steep dive into the water feet first to catch fish.
European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are ubiquitous across North America, where they compete with native cavity-nesting birds for space. They reportedly were brought to the Americas by a fan of William Shakespeare who set out to introduce every bird mentioned in the Bard’s work to the New World. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin released 60 starlings in Central Park in New York City, and the rest was “to be.” Immigrants brought many plants and animals from home when they resettled in the New World, and most of them behaved well enough. However, a few became invasive, meaning they cause ecological or economic harm.
The Greater Prairie Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) once numbered in the millions in Illinois. At first, as the Illinois prairie was converted to farmland, prairie chickens grew in numbers. But as the ratio of farmland to prairie grew more lopsided, prairie chickens declined in number, leaving a small, remnant population on two preserves in southern Illinois.
This specimen of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) (here compared with the common Pileated Woodpecker on the left) is not from Illinois. The only Illinois records we have are observations from naturalists, mostly in the 1800s. John James Audubon, the famous bird artist, encountered calling Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the 1820s on both sides of the Ohio River where it meets the Mississippi River at Cairo. Southern Illinois was the far northern extent of the species at that time.
Though it sounds like a Great Lakes legend, the Lake Sturgeon is a real, if seldom seen, native of Illinois waters. The largest fish species in the Great Lakes, they can grow to nine feet long and 275 pounds, although four feet and 50 pounds is more typical.
The unmistakable ridges of the carapace (or shell) tell us right away that this prehistoric-looking creature is the Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii). It is our largest freshwater turtle, weighing up to 200 pounds. They lie in wait for prey submerged underwater and try to lure a meal into range by means of a wormlike appendage on the floor of their mouths. When a fish or other aquatic animal moves in to investigate, the turtle snaps its jaws shut.
Ancient shark relatives from the Pennsylvanian Period evolved some puzzling jaw structures that sometimes curved outward, giving the appearance of two saw blades curving away from each other. That’s why scientists describe them as “tooth whorls.”
Discovered by an excavation crew in 1926 on the bank of the Ohio River near Golconda in Pope County, this Wooly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) specimen didn’t come quietly. Illinois State Museum Director Aljah R. Crook worked with the crew on scene to recover as much of the Mammoth skeleton as possible.