I have lived in this part of southern Illinois for over 60 years; more specifically, in this old farm house for 34 years. The richness of the flora and fauna that we enjoyed in the first decades of our living here was immense. There were so many insects, birds, and mammals in this tiny sector of our .55 acres of land that we own, with daily sightings and sounds of such enormous diversity. This small parcel of land had a daily litany of what I thought would always be here in species presence and sounds . But unfortunately throughout the years that we have inhabited this half acre of Illinois, there have been species that have gone missing. What were once common species are no longer. Those I heard or saw 15 or 20 years ago are reduced in numbers, or non-existent. Some sounds I knew are now gone. The sightings no longer. I don’t know what caused most of their demise, but I know what was here. I know what I miss.
I miss June Bugs. I miss June Bugs pinging on our window screens late at night, and thwonking against the vinyl siding after dusk. June Bugs were always here in June, unless they appeared in May, in which we called them May Beetles. And should they happen to show up in April, they were called April Coleopteran. But they were always here. June Bugs were always here: whether in June, or May or April. I am reminded of what J.B.S. Haldane purportedly declared when asked of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and Beetles specifically- he said that “God has an inordinate fondness of beetles”. If true, God has removed the June Bug from his list in this part of Illinois. Populations have been as low as zero for two decades, based on what I observed and heard while sitting on my deck at night for the past 20 years.
I miss the peent of the Nighthawk, an easily identified song even though the bird was invisible in the Spring night skies. I have not heard one call for over 20 years. They were once common, to be heard almost every evening beginning in May. There was a chant I told myself when I heard them : Caprimulgiformes; Caprimulgidae — Family; subfamily. It rolled off my tongue each and every time I heard their singular call into the night sky.
Praying Mantis, Walking Sticks, and Lacewings were seen weekly in our backyard, as were Luna and Polyphemus moths. Unfortunately those species are now missing. The last Luna Moth I recall seeing was 25 years ago. I’m fairly confident with that citing statistic as it pre-dates the year when we built the deck on the back of the house, which was in 1993. I haven’t seen one since. The decline of frog species has been documented for years, and I can well attest to the silence that once contained the singing of Western Chorus frogs and Spring Peepers. Boy do I miss those sounds. They were so common. Their calls were so ubiquitous, that they diminished the other early night sounds in the background of every summer night. They were always there. Always present. Yes, I miss them.
There were Voles, and lots of them. We saw them daily, running between the garage and chicken shed, and I often wondered how they could survive the day-time predators of coyotes and red fox. Sadly, the answer is another of “What I Miss”. Red foxes, although may now be seen maybe once or twice a year, are definitely on the decline. There was once a prey-predator relationship that operated between voles and foxes, but it no longer exists. No prey. No predator. I miss seeing the Milky Way. It’s a phenomena taken for granted growing up in a different farm house not far from this one, the one I grew up in. Who would have ever concluded something that vast would become invisible as city lights proliferated and out shone all of those stars. Yes, if you travel far outside the city limits it is still there to be marveled, however I wish it were still a common sight, in everyone’s backyard. In every cloudless night.
Quail vs. Killdeer: Bobwhite quail have been missing for many years, however we are still entertained by the gorgeous plumage and distinct call of the Killdeer. It is no wonder that the species name for the Killdeer is “vociferus“. Their “Kill-Deer Kill-Deer” song is unmistakable in evoking a prairie tune uncontested. And one cannot hold back a smile when you watch their distinct and comedic ground locomotion: two stilt legs pressing fast forward, pausing, and then resuming their frenetic run. If it were not for the Killdeer, many of us in the land-locked Mid-West would be bereft of a member of the Plover family to cheer on and be grateful for their stunning presence.
I miss watching Kestrels hovering 75 feet in the air, employing keen eyesight to locate prey, then dive for it!. Kestrels are still in the area, however instead of seeing two or three a month, it is now one every six months, if fortune holds. As one of the few sexually dimorphic prey birds in North America, a sighting always has a dual impact on my psyche: for the male and female are so easily deciphered, and either sex prompts a quiet and thankful sigh that they are still here. And when one reflects on the hovering flight behavior of the Kestrel, it becomes very obvious that they ARE the original Drones. The Kestrel preceded those mechanical devices by thousands of years, and did it with such a significant “fait accompli”.
I miss Redheaded Woodpeckers, Shrikes, and Brown Bats that have gone AWOR: “away with our regrets”. All three species were so plentiful while growing up in my natal farm house of Madison County. There was barely a day that I would not have seen all of them. A Redheaded Woodpecker can be sited very infrequently, but I do not recall seeing a Shrike for many decades. And I miss them.
And I wonder what all of these reflections I know of what have gone missing, or reduced, on these .55 acres in Southern Illinois is compared to what has gone missing from the hectare outside a small town in Venezuela, a valley along the Rhone River, or a mountain ridge in a province of Eastern Asia. I know that the diminished diversity that has occurred in my half acre in Illinois is unfortunately shared with those hectares, valleys, and mountain ridges. Too many species have gone AWOR in all of these locales.
But this doomsday pattern of the aforementioned has one promising return to the non-missing list. The last three nights, right at dusk, which is about 8:45 PM, I have stood on the back steps, and something I have missed is not missing anymore. There have been bats sculling through the twilight skies in a flight that is unmistakable. Little Brown Bats, Myotis lucifugus. Absent for over 20 years, they are back. The bats are back, and I do rejoice their return. I don’t know where they have been, but night after night, I have counted up to as many as 6 individuals. There is now a hopeful snapshot of a June’s evening, with the breeze fading, that includes the call of a Grey Tree Frog, some crickets, a Mourning Dove’s mate calling, and finally Bats. Little Brown Bat.
I am on my deck on June 16,2016, and the first choral round of the Cicadas’ song has begun for the Summer. Fireflies have been present for three days, albeit in smaller numbers. Cardinals, Robins, and Chickadees are finalizing their roosting rights, along with Wrens and Grackles. I’ve seen many Brown Bats skim the pre-nocturnal sky, but I know when I retire tonight for the evening, there won’t be any June Bugs aka May Beetles. And there won’t be any un-witnessed carnage of their wings or limbs on the patio table from the previous evening’s feast.
Because June Bugs in this part of Southern Illinois are gone. Yes, I do miss them. I also know tomorrow there won’t be a Bobwhite, or a Luna Moth, or that I hear a Nighthawk.
The richness of this fauna I knew 30 years ago is now unfortunately mostly devoid of June bugs, Nighthawks, Lacewings, Praying Mantis, Walking Sticks, Chorus Frogs, Redheaded Woodpeckers, Voles, Bobwhite, Luna Months, and the Milky Way. I loathe to prospect on what the next changes that may occur, but based on the past 30 years, how optimistic can I allow myself to be.
You know the last time I remembered hearing a Nighthawk? Nineteen-eighty four.
Photo of June Bug by Astrid Gast. Photo of Nighthawk by Daniel Holmes.