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Habitat Helpers!

A habitat is the place in which a species is suited to live. It contains the food, water, shelter and space necessary for the species' survival. These components must be present in the proper amount and arrangement. The amount of suitable habitat generally determines the variety of species and the number of individuals that can live in an area. If the habitat needs for a species are not available, the members of that species must move to a location that does meet their survival needs, or they will die.

Habitat requirements may be similar, but they are unique for each species. For example, insects, birds, mammals, frogs, fungi, spiders and other species, including plants, may live on or in a tree at the same time. Each species performs a different function, though, and has different needs. They may live at different heights in the tree. They may eat different things. They may be active at different times during the day. They are all finding what they need to survive and living together.

Biodiversity is the variety of life. About 54,000 species have been identified as living in Illinois, not counting bacteria. This great variety of life is due to the many habitat types in the state. Habitats continually change, and a habitat with many species is more likely to adapt to and survive changes than one with a few types of organisms. In Illinois, soils, topography, drainage and climate determine the types of natural communities present in an area. Illinois has four main types of habitats: aquatic; woodland; grassland/prairie; and urban. Each of these habitats has its own characteristics and supports species adapted to it.

Loss and degradation of wildlife habitat are serious problems in Illinois. Habitats can change by natural means or by human influences. As Illinois’ natural areas are lost to competing interests such as urban development, agricultural and industrial uses, and as exotic species continue to invade, the role of individual landowners becomes increasingly important to wildlife. Human actions are often detrimental to wildlife habitat, but humans can also take positive actions for wildlife. Listed below are just a few of the positive actions that you can take to benefit wildlife.

  • Plant native plants in your yard, school grounds and on public property. Native plants are adapted to Illinois' climate and can withstand drought, disease and insect attacks. They developed with our native animals and provide food and shelter for them. Select species that flower or fruit at different times of the year to provide food for several months. If you are a teacher or youth-group leader, you may want to look into the Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant program for funds to help support your project.

  • Provide nesting, roosting and den boxes for animal species. See additional information below.

  • Leave dead trees standing, when possible, to provide food, shelter and nesting/roosting habitat.

  • Before clearing an area of vegetation, consider the effects of your actions on the wildlife living there.

  • Provide nesting structures for native bees. See additional information below.

  • Make clean, fresh water available daily for wildlife.

  • Provide brush piles and rock piles for wildlife shelters.

  • Research the food and shelter requirements of the species you are trying to assist and provide those requirements.

  • Purchase hunting and fishing licenses/stamps and hunting and fishing equipment. Your investment in these items includes money dedicated to the conservation of fish and wildlife species.

  • Plant a pollinator garden, butterfly garden, prairie garden, rain garden or hummingbird garden.

  • Leave a few dead limbs in your yard for native bees to nest in.

  • Provide bare patches of soil for ground-nesting bees.

  • Develop a woodland, prairie, pond or wetland habitat.

  • Don’t kill milkweeds. Plant milkweeds for monarchs. See additional information below.

  • Don’t use chemicals to kill plants and invertebrates unless necessary and if necessary use the least toxic ones possible.

  • Take part in citizen-science projects such as Bee Spotter and Journey North.

  • Educate others about wildlife habitat issues.

  • Encourage land managers to increase native wildlife habitat.

  • Support conservation efforts for wildlife, such as the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund. See additional information below.

  • Provide dusting habitat and grit for birds.

  • Participate in Christmas tree recycling. See additional information below.

  • Remove invasive, nonnative plant species from your property and encourage others to do so, too. See additional information below.

Be a Habitat Helper! and make a positive difference for wildlife! 

Nesting, Roosting and Den Boxes

These structures can provide animals with safe, suitable homes, especially in areas where there are few or no large, hollow trees. They can also help reduce competition with invasive, exotic species. Most of the boxes are designed to represent a hole in a tree and will attract cavity-dwelling animals of several species. The size of the hole helps to determine the types of animals that can utilize the box. Construction plans for several types of boxes can be found in the publication Wood Projects for Illinois Wildlife. Boxes can also be purchased from a variety of vendors.

Native Bee Nesting Structures

Native bee species are important plant pollinators. As with many other pollinator species, the numbers of these animals are rapidly declining. You can help native bee survival in several ways, including by providing nesting structures for them.

Some native bees nest in holes, including in hollow stems, dead wood and rock crevices. You can provide simple nesting structures for these bees.

  • Tie a bundle of paper straws together and place it under an eave (note: do not use plastic straws).
  • Drill holes of various sizes several inches deep in a dead log, stump or untreated piece of lumber. Place the piece of wood in your garden or a sunny spot in your yard.
  • Cut pieces of small bamboo so that they will fit in an empty coffee can or other structure. The bamboo pieces should be about two inches shorter than the container. Fill the container with bamboo pieces with an open end from each piece facing the opening of the can. Place the can on its side in a sheltered area or hang it from a tree. The opening should face the east or southeast.

The bees will lay their eggs in the holes. They place the eggs in chambers in the holes, and seal each egg and a food source in a chamber. When the egg hatches, the larval bee feeds on the stored food. The adult bee seals the outside chamber when she is finished laying eggs in it. You can tell that the bamboo or straw has been used by the plug on the end.

You will need to maintain the nesting structures to reduce the chances of parasites and diseases. If you are using a bundle of paper straws, you can recycle them after the end plug has been removed by the emerging bees. A log can be reused by drilling more holes. Lumber can be reused if the nesting holes are cleaned out after the bees emerge or if there are still plenty of unused openings. Bamboo tubes that have been cleaned can be used for one more year or can be replaced. See the link below to “Tunnel Nests for Native Bees: Nest Construction and Management” for more details.

Some people find that watching bees use a nesting structure is more enjoyable than bird-watching!

Native Plants

Native plants are adapted to Illinois' climate and can withstand drought, disease and insect attacks. They developed with our native animals and provide food and shelter for them. Look for native plant species that support the types of animals that you want to attract and that are adapted to the type of growing conditions that you have available. When starting a native plant garden, you may want to consider using plant plugs or container-raised plants instead of seeds. Container-raised plants may have a higher initial cost, but they usually have a better success rate than seeds and are easier to identify when removing weeds from the planting location. Native wildflowers grown from seeds may take two to three years to start flowering. If the area that you want to plant is large, then seeds may be your best option.

For more information about native habitats, wildlife habitats, plant lists and growing conditions required, visit this Web page.

For instructions about growing and maintaining native plants, visit this Web page.

The For Your Garden Web page has links to photographs of several native plant species.

For more information about native Illinois plants, including where to purchase them and planting guides, view the following publications at our publications page.

Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant

The Illinois Schoolyard Habitat Action Grant program offers funding to teachers, nature center personnel and youth group leaders of any of grades prekindergarten through 12 in Illinois to apply to a project that will create or enhance native wildlife habitat on the school grounds or other public place. The maximum grant award is $1,000 per educator. Students must be involved in all aspects of the project. Native plants must be used, if vegetation is a part of the project. Examples of projects that have been implemented include butterfly gardens, prairie plots, wetlands, outdoor classrooms, rain gardens, native tree arboretums, nesting platforms, bird nesting boxes, bat roosting boxes and vernal pools for amphibians. The annual application deadline is November 30. Funds are provided on a reimbursement basis. Reimbursement will occur only for items from the applicant’s budget approved by the judging committee at the judging meeting. To access the complete instructions and application form, visit the grants Web page. Funds are administered by the Illinois Conservation Foundation. Funding is provided by the Jadel Family Foundation, the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program.

Milkweeds for Monarchs

A close relationship exists between monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and milkweed (Asclepias spp.) plants. Monarch larvae only eat milkweed plants. If there is no milkweed, there will be no monarchs. Female monarchs usually lay their eggs only on milkweed plants. They find milkweeds by using visual and chemical cues.

What are milkweeds? They are perennial, herbaceous plants. Most have leaves that are paired on the stem or in whorls of four on the stem. Their sap is white and milky. Milkweed plants contain cardiac glycosides. These chemicals are poisonous and affect birds and mammals. Many grazing mammals will not eat milkweeds. The toxicity of milkweeds varies by species, though, and tends to be greater in milkweeds in the southern United States. A few animal species have adapted to milkweeds and thrive on them. Monarch larvae can eat nothing else. The poisons accumulate in the body of the larval monarchs and are retained by the monarch in its transformation to the adult. They make monarchs unpalatable to many predators.

Flowers develop in an umbel at the stem tip. An umbel has a central point from which a group of flowers all develop. Color varies with the species, but milkweeds can be found with white, pink, red, orange, green and purple-pink flowers. The flowers are sometimes described as having an hourglass shape. Each flower has five petals and five sepals that bend downward. A five-parted cup supports five small horns and hoods. The hoods contain nectar and are arranged around the central flower column. The flower column has slits in it. Inside each slit is an opening where pollen must be delivered to fertilize the egg. Also in each slit is the pollinarium that contains the pollen in packets.

When an insect lands on the flower to drink nectar, its leg, antennae or bristles can slip into the slit where the pollen is stored. The pollen-containing structure clips onto the insect part. When the insect pulls away from the flower, this pollen packet goes, too. At another flower, the same insect body part may slip inside another slit in the flower column where the pollen needs to be delivered. If so, that flower is pollinated. Milkweed flowers are unique in this method of pollen transfer. The fruit that develops from the flower is a pod that contains seeds attached to floss. These seeds are easily dispersed by wind.

Nineteen species of milkweeds grow naturally in Illinois. Four of these species are listed as endangered in Illinois, and one of the four is listed as threatened on the federal endangered and threatened species list.

Milkweeds grow in a variety of habitats. Some of them prefer wet soil. Some of them prefer dry soil. Some of them flourish along roads or in fields. Others grow in open woods or thickets. Two invasive milkweed species that are native to Europe now grow in North America, including Illinois. Problems occur when female monarchs lay eggs on them.

Remove Invasive Plant Species

An invasive species is any species not native to a particular ecosystem and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm. Exotic species are those plants and animals that were not present in Illinois prior to the time of European settlement. Not all exotic species are invasive, but many of them are aggressive invaders of their new environments because they have no predators or other natural controls. Invasive exotic species usually result in the elimination of native species, reduction in native biodiversity and habitat degradation. Invasive plants destroy more than three million acres of native habitats each year in the United States and the annual cost of combating this invasion is more than $35 billion. Economically, they cause decreases in property value and in recreational opportunities. A list of invasive plants species in Illinois can be found here.

Invasive Species Awareness Month is held each May. Visit the Web site to learn about actions you can take to stop the spread of invasive species in Illinois.

IDNR invasive plant partnerships and resources can be found here.

The IDNR Division of Education has Illinois’ Invasive Species resources trunks for loan with preserved specimens of invasive species, lessons, student activities, field guides, books and many other educational resources. You’ll find the list of lending locations and more information at this Web site.

Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund

​Non-game species are wild species which cannot be legally taken for sport, fur, food or profit. Non-game wildlife is defined by the Non-Game Wildlife Protection Act as: "...protected wildlife and wildlife of specialized habitats - both terrestrial and aquatic types and mollusks, crustaceans and other invertebrates under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources." The majority of all rare and endangered species are non-game species.

The Illinois General Assembly declared that "non-game wildlife have need of special protection and that it is in the public interest to preserve, protect, perpetuate and enhance non-game wildlife and native plant resources of this State through preservation of a satisfactory environment and an ecological balance." This Act provides a means by which such protection may be financed through a voluntary check-off designation on state income tax return forms. All donations to the fund must be used to assist non-game wildlife and native plants in Illinois. Each individual taxpayer required to file a state income tax return may contribute to the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund by stating the amount of such contribution (not less than $1.00) on the return under the section titled “Donations.” The amount of the donation will be deducted from the tax refund (if the taxpayer is due a refund) or will be added to the amount of tax owed. Other direct donations may also be made to the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund by sending a check to the following address.

Office of Resource Conservation
Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund
One Natural Resources Way
Springfield, IL 62702-1271

Much of the responsibility for ensuring the continued existence of these wild species lies with the IDNR’s Division of Natural Heritage and is dependent upon the support and involvement of Illinois citizens. Since this program's inception, more than 900 projects have been funded statewide through check-off donations totaling over $4.8 million. Wildlife habitat enhancement and research initiatives approved for funding by the Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund Advisory Committee focus on protecting endangered and threatened species and educating Illinois school children and citizens about the importance of resource conservation.

Restoring Native Habitats

The Office of Mines and Minerals of the IDNR is responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the Surface-mined Land Conservation and Reclamation Act of 1971 and the Surface Coal Mining Land Conservation and Reclamation Act of 1980. Among the duties of this office are: ensuring that active coal-mining operations are properly reclaimed, thereby assuring the restoration of lands affected by mining to productive uses; regulating repair to land and structures damaged as a result of mine subsidence resulting from underground coal mining; and inspecting all active coal-mining sites to ensure that reclamation standards are met and approved reclamation plans are followed.

The Division of Natural Heritage works to maintain, restore and recover Illinois' natural heritage. Field staff members conduct prescribed fires, remove invasive species and otherwise manage natural areas that would lose their unique characteristics and quality without these efforts. The division prepares and conducts endangered species recovery plans, along with the Endangered Species Protection Board and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Such efforts may include biological research and habitat improvement/creation, as well as species reintroduction.

The Illinois Wildlife Action Plan contains goals that are based on the diversity and abundance of wildlife that maintain the state’s biodiversity for the long term and satisfy our recreational and economic needs for angling, hunting, trapping and wildlife viewing. These wildlife objectives are translated into the habitats needed to support them: how much habitat is needed; the quality that should be maintained; and the locations where it will have the greatest benefit. The vision of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan fulfills our responsibility to conserve wildlife and places they live for future generations and acts as a guide to actions by a variety of conservation-based organizations.

Christmas Tree Recycling

You can be a Habitat Helper! after the holiday season by donating your Christmas tree to be placed in a lake as fish habitat. Only natural evergreen trees can be donated for this purpose.

Why do Christmas trees provide fish habitat in ponds and lakes? There are several reasons. These trees contain a large amount of surface area on their branches and leaves. Tiny microorganisms called phytoplankton and algae grow directly on the leaves and branches. The phytoplankton and algae are eaten by zooplankton. Aquatic insects, snails and other invertebrates feed on the zooplankton. Larger animals, including fishes, eat the insects, snails and other invertebrates, and these larger animals are in turn fed upon by larger fishes. So the trees are helping to support the aquatic food web. Some of the large fish predators use the trees to hide in as they hunt and rest. Other smaller fishes live in or near the trees.

Why do our ponds and lakes need this habitat help? The majority of the ponds and lakes in Illinois are human-made. Many of them were constructed in areas that did not have existing trees that could fall into the water or are too large for trees or branches to fall into the water at places all over the lake. The ground where the pond or lake was built may have been bare to start with so there are few places for aquatic organisms to feed and hide. Rivers are generally more natural, and trees often line their banks. Trees or their parts can fall into the water or be washed into the water and accumulate. They can be pushed along by the current, too.

Christmas trees may be placed directly in the water, if no ice is present, or placed on ice to fall in the water as the ice melts in the spring. Caution should be taken when using either method to insure that the people placing the trees do not fall in the water or through or on the ice. There are many videos on the Internet showing details of how to place the Christmas trees. Please be aware that only natural Christmas trees with all of the ornaments removed should be used. Do not use trees that have been flocked. The Christmas trees decompose in the water so there is a need to replace them annually.