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Your Wild Animal Stories

a skunk about to spray
A skunk ready to spray. Photo by Paul Dako.

We asked for your best sightings, and here’s what you shared.

What is the most amazing, unusual or memorable thing you’ve ever witnessed a wild animal do in the forest preserves?  We asked Forest Preserve staff and our Facebook community, and you had some wild stories, mostly about birds and mammals, and many involving animals caught in the act of eating one another. A lot of stories came from our naturalists, who spend the better part of each day in the preserves.

What’s clear is that there’s a lot of cool stuff happening out there, and you can see it if you’re observant and lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

I think [my sighting] must be the way the killdeer [at Deer Grove East, in Palatine] act if you walk too close to their nest. They flop around like they have a broken wing to try to draw you away from the eggs/chicks.

Anne Farrell Stake, via Facebook

Just before sunset, my husband and I were leaving the parking lot of a preserve in northwest Cook County when our headlights caught a mother skunk and her five kits crossing the road ahead of us. The mother skunk’s response to the car heading towards them was to round up the kits with their heads facing toward each other, and their tails (and scent glands with their potent spray) facing out. It was wonderful to watch this defensive posturing, which would work very well against most would-be predators on foot.

Cathy Geraghty, FPCC Director of Strategic Initiatives

I was sitting at the information desk one day at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington.  The sky was partly cloudy and the temps were mild, when I happen to notice small white flakes drifting by the window.  The first thing that entered my mind was, Snow?  Then logic kicked in and said, “No way, the day is too warm and it is not even overcast!”  Then I noticed it was down feathers.  Curiosity got the better of me and I walked outside.  A Cooper’s hawk was on the roof with a bird that it had captured.  The hawk was pulling out the feathers to expose the flesh.  Every beakful of feathers it pulled out, drifted over the roof and floated down onto the patio.  Needless to say, that snow would never melt.

Jeff Rapp, Director, Crabtree Nature Center

In the spring I find the back lake at the Chicago Botanic Garden [in Glencoe]…tends to collect a large ternary of migrating caspian terns. The two most interesting behaviors I’ve seen were a) a feeding frenzy, with 20 or more terns swirling and diving for fish at the same time (they must have found a school of fish), and b) terns presenting fish to other terns.

Cara Litberg, via Facebook

Right before summer’s end, my wife and I took a walk around Big Bend Lake [in Des Plaines]. We were able to witness this [heron] catch a fish and gulp it down.

Miguel Angel Nieves III, via Facebook

I was sitting at the front desk at Crabtree Nature Center (in Barrington) one day last May working on my computer when I noticed something scurrying across the walkway. We have birdfeeders set up out front and there are chipmunks and squirrels running back and forth pretty much continuously, but even though I had only seen it peripherally, this struck me as somehow different. I dismissed it as a chipmunk and went back to what I was working on.

A little while later I was surprised by the sight of a least weasel coming back across the walk with a chipmunk in its jaws! It dashed across the walk and disappeared in the trees in front of the building. I was dumbfounded! The chipmunk that it carried was almost as big as it was! I stepped outside to see if I could find where it had gone, but it was out of sight. The noise outside was outrageous, though–it sounded like every chipmunk in a 1/2 mile radius was sounding an alarm!  A short time later, the weasel reappeared and quickly slunk back across the path, apparently in search of more chipmunks! It had my attention, and I was ready for it. A few minutes later it returned with another chipmunk in its jaws, and I jumped up and ran out just in time to see it dive into a small hole, chipmunk firmly clenched in her jaws.  I realized I had been watching a busy mama with hungry mouths to feed.

I informed our Wildlife team and they came out and set up a trail camera, which they checked and reset for several days, but were unsuccessful in capturing a shot of our mama least weasel. Two weeks later, during our Explore the Forest event, on our busy back patio in full view of an astonished Wildlife Aide and many surprised visitors, mama weasel ran across the patio with another chipmunk in her jaws! Obviously, a mama’s gotta do what a mama’s gotta do!

Karen Holmes, FPCC Naturalist

This happened last May while I was the Attendant at Sand Ridge Nature Center (in South Holland). I was walking back to the center from the parking lot, when from the corner of my eye I spotted a large bird landing on a tree. At first I thought it was one of the Cooper’s hawks that prey on the birds at the nearby feeder. As I approached the tree I saw that it was a pileated woodpecker.

I tried getting a picture to show people, since I have never seen one in the wild before. Unfortunately I couldn’t get one because it would not stay in one spot for more than a second. I knew that some of the other staff members there are avid bird watchers, and I went in to tell the nature center director, Jim Carpenter. At first he didn’t believe me. He was asking if maybe it was a red-headed woodpecker. I knew it wasn’t since I have seen them around the nature center before.

After a couple of minutes he grabbed some binoculars and all three of us went outside. I took them to the last place I’d seen the bird. Shortly after reaching the tree, we heard the bird call from Dogwood Trail to the south. Jim and the one other person went onto the trail to find it. After fifteen or so minutes passed, they came back to the center. That was when Jim said that was the first confirmed sighting of a pileated woodpecker at Sand Ridge Nature Center.

 Nick Malone, FPCC Nature Center Attendant

Several winters ago, I was volunteering at a workday at Bunker Hill, on the northwest side of Chicago, cutting invasive brush and burning it on a brushpile. As our group worked, voles would pop out of the snow, run across the crusty surface and disappear so quickly I convinced myself the first few times they were just a “floater” in my eye. As the workday wound down, we relaxed around the brushpile, enjoying the beautiful winter day. Before long, we noticed that a few voles had joined us, taking advantage of the melted snow around the fire and chewing off still-green blades of grass. That was fun, but the oddest thing was that eventually they got so comfortable that they actually set up camp under the heel of my girlfriend’s boot as she crouched by the fire. Talk about putting yourself in harm’s way!

Don Parker, FPCC Communications Specialist

The red-tailed hawk arrived right on cue for the “Mighty Acorns” kids to see on November 14. As Forest Preserves Outreach South staff, we were focused on supervising elementary students at Dan Ryan Woods (in southern Chicago) with environmental education activities. The hawk was also focused, but not on us humans. A squirrel was looking good for lunch.

A Forest Preserves naturalist spotted the hawk perched in a nearby oak, and seized the moment to discuss the predator-prey relationship. The importance of biodiversity, interdependence, and healthy habitat was clearly witnessed by the kids. The kids were thanked for their restoration efforts in buckthorn removal.

After the kids left, the hawk seized his moment. We watched the hawk swoop down, grab the squirrel, carry it low to the ground for about 30 yards, and then ascend to a bur oak branch. Then things got bloody. Too bad the kids missed this part. We watched the hawk enjoy his lunch…for hours. The next day, under that bur oak, we found squirrel body parts, including the skull. Something is working right at Dan Ryan Woods.

Kevin Kuhn, FPCC Outreach Naturalist

Seeing a mother deer (doe) nursing her fawn [at Schiller Woods in northwest Chicago], up close.

Irene Flebbe, FPCC Naturalist, via Facebook