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Where the wild things are – on NIU’s campus

Urban ecologist John Vanek has seen (and photographed) it all

DeKALB – If you’re hoping to spot a deer, fox or coyote while strolling through campus at Northern Illinois University, graduate student John Vanek is your man.

While working toward his Ph.D. in biological sciences, which he expects to earn in May, Vanek has become an expert in urban ecology. He knows the story behind the NIU geese and the habits of critters that prowl campus at night, as well as the animals that creep, hop and slither through our forest preserves and backyards.

Like most biologists, Vanek loves the great outdoors – although truth be told, sometimes his work can stink.

“Before I came to NIU, I studied skunks down in southern Illinois, catching them and putting on tracking collars,” says Vanek, a native of Long Island, New York. (Actually, he never got sprayed by skunk because he knows what he’s doing.)

While at NIU, Vanek has studied Illinois wildlife in all its glory, at places ranging from Nachusa Grasslands to the Lake County Forest Preserves to the NIU campus. Using motion-sensitive trail cameras, he and colleagues have captured thousands of animals in photographs and on video. (He has 700 skunk images from Lake County and 14,000 photos of raccoons.) He also has more than a dozen research publications under his belt, and he’ll defend his dissertation this month.

The NIU Newsroom asked him to tell us a little about wildlife on campus.

What are some of the animals you often see on NIU’s campus?

Well, there are four different types of squirrel – gray, fox, eastern chipmunk and woodchuck or groundhog. We have red fox, which we’ve had in the Montgomery Woods; striped skunk; Virginia opossum; raccoons; white-tailed deer; coyote; and a variety of smaller mammals, such as voles and white-footed mice. We also have about five different species of frogs and at least one snake.

What are the most unusual critters you’ve seen on campus?

There are some cool turtles. The strangest is the spiny softshell turtle. Instead of a hard shell, it has a leathery skin. The turtle is flat like a pancake, and on the tip of its nose is something like a snorkel, so it just sticks its nose out of the water to breath. That’s why many people don’t see them. I’ve also seen mink along the Kishwaukee River. They never stray far from the shoreline because they can fall prey to red-tailed hawks.

One of the things I still hope to see is the southern flying squirrel. We catch sight of a lot of them in Lake County, but they only come out at night. It’s a mystery if they are on campus. They can glide up to 100 yards between trees, so they’re easily mistaken for birds.

Why do geese seem to be everywhere?

The main type of goose we have on campus is called the giant Canada goose (Branta canadensis maxima), and we’ve created the perfect environment for them. They are basically cows with feathers, and they love to eat the short turf grass on campus – it’s an endless buffet. People don’t really have to worry about them. They can bite, but birds don’t have teeth, so it might just pinch a little. Some of the geese are resident, meaning they live here year-round, and some just pass through. Interestingly, the Canada goose is one of the great success stories of wildlife biology.

What’s the story behind the comeback of the geese?

The giant Canada goose is the largest type of goose in the world. The subspecies declined as a result of unregulated market hunting, egg collecting and habitat loss. As of 1962, they were thought to be extinct until a small flock of 200 was rediscovered in Minnesota by a scientist from the Illinois Natural History Survey, Harold Hansen. Thanks to captive breeding and restocking efforts, as well as the proliferation of open green spaces, the population is now estimated at over 4 million. It really is an incredible conservation story – so much so that the question is now how to control the population.

Are there any unusual bird species that students might encounter at NIU?

I’m not a big bird person, but we have a ton of bird diversity because we have the habitats, particularly the lagoon and river. I’ve heard screech owl, and people have seen great horned and barred owls. Every once in a while, I’ll spot a bald eagle flying over the Kish.

Are there certain areas on campus where you’re more likely to encounter wildlife?

On the main campus, you’ll run into lots of Canada Goose and squirrels. If you head to the woods by the Convocation Center, you’ll find species that are more secretive, such as coyotes.

Are deer plentiful on campus? Why don’t we ever see them during the day?

Deer are crepuscular, so they come out around dusk and dawn. You’re much more likely to see them here at night around Montgomery Woods. They’re probably not using the area near the lagoon too often, because they get nervous in open areas. They like to hang out near woods, and I’ve seen some big bucks out by the Convo Center. They bed down during the day in areas where there’s more cover and fewer people.

Urban ecology is an interesting field. Who has inspired you at NIU?

I’m co-advised by professors Rich King and Holly Jones. They’re both rock stars in their fields, and I consider them as mentors. I think that’s the most important part of grad school – finding supportive advisers.

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