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Wisdom in the Woods

The death of an owl highlights the need for preservation.

The photo of the dead owl was disturbing. Knowing where it was taken made it more so.

There has been a nest of owls in a corner of the Milwaukee County Grounds as long as I have known the area (most likely far longer since I am a relative newcomer, having moved to Wauwatosa in 1988). Over the years I have seen owls only rarely. They are nocturnal and elusive. However, their distinctive hooting has often provided a welcome, if haunting, soundtrack to evening rambles through the woods.

The woods themselves have been one of my favorite urban wilderness destinations. Until fairly recently the tall stand of mixed oak, maple and other hardwoods was very secluded and, although situated right across from the busy Medical Complex, usually deserted. In recent years, since the development of the Research Park across Highway 45 drove them out, dog walkers have discovered this place and made of it an unofficial dog park.

The woods in question are at the north end of an approximately 11-acre parcel on the eastern edge of the County Grounds. Ronald McDonald House, a charity that provides accommodations and outreach for families of patients at Children’s Hospital, sits on the hilltop near the south end, facing Watertown Plank Road. Between the dense woods and the guesthouse is a remarkable example of an ecosystem once common in Wisconsin but now one of the most endangered: the oak savannah. Oak savannahs are essentially meadowlands spotted with oak trees. They were integral to certain Indian tribe hunting culture and were kept from evolving into forests with fire.

The more modern practice of mowing had been keeping this small savannah intact until budget cutbacks curtailed it. Now the meadow is under duress, suffering the encroachment of fast-growing box elders and other trees. But a more existential question overhangs this fascinating and attractive parcel of county-owned land.  

The woods and savannah are contiguous with the newly created 55-acre park and 90-acre flood basins. To the many who use the area for recreation and dog walking, it all seems to belong together. More important, I think, it contributes essential habitat for migrating monarchs and numerous other species. Parkland this valuable would be impossible to duplicate and its loss would be tragic.

According to sources in the county board office, not long ago the Ronald McDonald House proposed a sprawling expansion to the north that would have destroyed a large portion of this land. County supervisors wisely questioned the need and encouraged the organization to confine its expansion plans to the southern portion of the property.

However, nothing has been determined and the entire parcel remains identified as an area for economic development. It’s time to rescue this fine and popular natural area from bureaucratic limbo. It should be zoned Conservancy and added to the new county park.

It isn’t clear how the owl died. However, since owls are a top predator, most likely it was a victim of foul play by one of our own species. In Western culture the owl has been the symbol of wisdom at least since the ancient Greeks associated the bird with Athena, their goddess of wisdom. Let us hope that the unpropitious death of this noble bird is not a harbinger of the fate of the land. Acting with wisdom, we can protect the woods and the savannah for future generations – and ourselves.

Julie Lubbers July 12, 2011 at 09:02 PM
I am also saddened to see the photo of the dead owl. I sometimes work nights at the "county grounds" and I've seen owls perched on the peaked roof at the Mental Health Complex or heard them hooting in the dark. I was glad they were surviving despite our human infiltration of their animal habitat. I love this area and don't want to see more development. I know that the area is deeply appreciated by many people, but many others don't give it a second thought. I am very disturbed that UWM has chosen to build their new engineering campus there. I know they vow to be environmentally responsible but no matter what, they'll be taking more habitat and the development will disrupt the wildlife patterns. For some species, like the Monarchs, it might be a tipping point to their demise. Thank you for your article.
Eddee Daniel July 12, 2011 at 10:01 PM
Thank you for your concerns, which are shared by many. The area behind Ronald McDonald House is not part of UWM's development zone and can still be saved with wise planning and judicious zoning.
David Martin July 13, 2011 at 01:42 AM
"It isn’t clear how the owl died. However, since owls are a top predator, most likely it was a victim of foul play by one of our own species." As an environmental advocate, and someone familiar with the natural world, I'm sure you can understand the lack of any evidence in your essay. You're speculating. Yes, the owl is dead, and yes we don't know the cause. And yes, a dead owl can be a good opportunity to think through issue related to the local ecology. But thinking through and speculating are two very different actions. One is grounded in facts and scientific principles, the other in, well, speculation. It's this kind of speculation that distorts the image of ecologists. There are several predatory birds in the area you write about: hawks, owls, kestrels. These birds reside in and hunt in the area circumscribing the County Grounds. I still hear the owls I've heard for ten years. I hear the hawks almost daily. I am not trying to say that a dead owl is a dead owl. But I am urging an interest in evidence beyond the initial speculation.
Eddee Daniel July 13, 2011 at 02:48 AM
I too enjoy hearing and seeing the hawks as much as the owls. Since I never saw this unfortunate owl myself, I have no evidence as you say. My comment was not intended to be speculative but rather metaphorical. I'm sorry if that wasn't clear.
Jim Price July 13, 2011 at 03:54 AM
David, I would agree that the thing to do would have been to conduct a necropsy on this owl to find out how it died. It might have been killed by another horned owl. It is a notorious species for killing its own – and others. Eddee and I and the anonymous photographer and others who saw the photos all talked, and while there is only speculation about the death of this one owl – which could have been perfectly natural – there is still the greater question of whether this habitat can be preserved, and that, I think, was the point of Eddee's column.

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