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.