Meet Your Wild Neighbors
From teeny little turtles to bald eagles, get an up-close look at nature at Willowbrook Wildlife Center
Last summer, a good Samaritan brought a female painted turtle that had been hit by a car to Willowbrook Wildlife Center, an animal rehabilitation and education center in Glen Ellyn. After examining the turtle, staff soon realized it was gravid, meaning heavy with eggs. Under the supervision of Staff Veterinarian Dr. Jen Nevis, a veterinary student removed the eggs and entrusted them to Staff Naturalist Kevin Luby.
Because there were no incubators available on site that day, Luby brought the eggs to his home, where he gently set them inside a small incubator set to 82 degrees in his basement. Before long, tiny turtles about the size of a nickel began hatching.
“They were adorable little things,” recalls Luby, noting that all seven hatchlings were later released into a DuPage County forest preserve.
Giving this sort of helping hand to wildlife is something staff and volunteers at Willowbrook have been doing since 1956. Each year, the wildlife facility receives about 9,000 sick, injured, or orphaned birds and animals that are native to northeastern Illinois, or that pass through this area during migration. Creatures with injuries that leave them unable to fend for themselves in the wild often become permanent residents of the wildlife center, giving visitors the opportunity to view and learn about their wild neighbors.
“Most people will not see a great horned owl, a peregrine falcon, or a short-eared owl, the last of which is an endangered species in Illinois,” notes Staff Naturalist Ron Skleney, referring to just a few of the wild birds that reside at Willowbrook. “We can teach people through interpretation about the cool animals that make their homes in DuPage County.”
INSIDE THE VISITOR’S CENTER
Various creatures on exhibit in the visitor’s center range from brilliantly-hued songbirds to a rare Blanding’s turtle and a western fox snake, all of which are accompanied by signs that list information about them, including their diets, breeding habits, and reasons they were brought to Willowbrook. Inquisitive visitors can look through two large windows to see into the kitchen area — where food is prepared for more than 200 animals each day — and check out creatures housed in the animal nursery, like baby cottontail rabbits and squirrels.
Guests may also have the opportunity to meet one of Willowbrook’s domestic education animals such as Rocky, a ring-necked dove. “With the education animals, we try to teach very young kids to differentiate between a wild animal and a pet animal, and the appropriate behavior to use when encountering them,” explains Skleney.
Staff members in the visitor’s center respond to approximately 13,000 phone calls a year from residents asking for advice on handling issues with wild animals, such as when a squirrel invades an attic.
“We try to work with them to use non-lethal methods and techniques to encourage that animal to go somewhere else,” said Skleney.
After checking out the visitor’s center, guests can go outdoors to view the various animals that reside along the exhibit trail, including a bald eagle rescued from the Connecticut River and transferred to Willowbrook from a rehabilitation center in Maine.
“She had sustained broken ribs and really severe damage to her right leg, which prevents her from being able to clasp the talons on that foot,” explains Luby. “An eagle that comes down to grab its food and only has one functioning foot has a lower chance of survival, so she was determined to be non-releasable.”
In addition to the bald eagle, some of the many other creatures that reside along the exhibit trail include a bobcat and a red-shouldered hawk, as well as red foxes, turkey vultures and owls. Trained volunteers and staff members sometimes remove the resident peregrine falcon and other education raptors from their cages and hold them securely on a gloved hand so that visitors can admire them more closely.
Other highlights include a butterfly garden, koi pond and a sensory garden filled with plants to see, smell and touch. The nature trail — which consists of a half-mile outer loop, a shorter inner loop, a picturesque pond and an enclosed wetland habitat where sandhill cranes reside — gives visitors a look at a small portion of Willowbrook’s 50 acres of land.
MORE TO LEARN AND DO
According to Skleney, Willowbrook offers about 350 formal education programs every year, including classes taught for groups such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
“Our most popular offsite program is our raptor outreach program — we do about 80 of those a year,” said Skleney. “We take two permanently disabled raptors to local schools to teach kids about raptor natural history and ecology, which gives the kids a chance to see birds of prey up close.”
One recent program, “Painted Turtles,” gave 6- to 12-year-olds the opportunity to learn about the turtles that live at Willowbrook, as well as a chance to paint their own pet rock turtle to bring home. Nature hikes for home-schooled students are also popular, as are summer camps and naturalist-led bird walks.
The goal of these educational opportunities is to help children and adults appreciate the beauty of nature and wildlife, and understand the importance of living in harmony with wild creatures.
The animals “belong here just as much as we do,” says Luby. “They were here before we were, so give them a chance. Everybody can live peacefully together, and we can enjoy having wild animals around us.”
BIRDS, MAMMOTHS AND MUCH MORE
A sampling of upcoming Willowbrook nature programs.
• International Migratory Bird Day
May 17, 8 a.m. to Noon
Admire songbirds decked out in their beautiful breeding colors during spring bird migration. Activities throughout the morning will include a bird walk for adults, a new birders walk, a bird banding demonstration (weather permitting), and a family bird walk.
• Birding at Willowbrook
Tuesday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m., through May 20. During this program, which is specifically designed for “new birders” and is appropriate for ages 10 years and up, participants go for a leisurely stroll on some of the 40 acres of land behind Willowbrook.
• Mammoth Hike
June 21, 9 to 11 a.m. During this program, held at nearby Blackwell Forest Preserve and McKee Marsh, a staff naturalist guides participants on a hike and recounts how the bones of a prehistoric woolly mammoth were discovered at Blackwell in 1977.
To learn about other upcoming educational programs and events including nature hikes and summer camps, visit www.dupageforest.org/willowbrook or call the wildlife center at 630 942-6200.
Willowbrook Wildlife Center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn. The 50-acre preserve is open to the public seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Registration and a small fee are required for some activities.Edit Module