Sunday, August 3, 2008

At the Harold "Hal" Tyrell Trailside Museum

Last Sunday J. spotted a goldfinch that appeared to be in distress. I looked up animal rehabbers in Cook County and discovered the Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum in Oak Park. Part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the museum is no longer in the animal rehab business, but the woman he spoke to told him the goldfinch most likely was a fledgling learning to fly and that he should leave it be.

Located in a house built in 1874, the museum intrigued me, so on Saturday we went to it. It's a straight shot down Harlem, but it took us more than an hour. Usually, I hate to have so little time to spend at a place (about an hour), but I suspected correctly that the museum is small enough to see in the time we had.

J. parked on a side street nearby, then we checked out the outdoor cages. The museum is home to a number of animals that can’t be released, including a turkey vulture (damaged wing), a red-tailed hawk, an American kestrel, a great horned owl (cataract in one eye), a coyote, and a red fox (imprinted). I could hear the fox before we got to her; she was running in and out of a crate, madly spinning and chasing her tail. When we went inside, I told the people in the office by the door, and a woman came out to look.

She told us about some of the animals and that the fox had been the only surviving kit from a mangy litter. As she approached the cage, the fox rolled over onto her back and cried and whined like a dog or perhaps any canid when a dominant member of the family arrives. At first she seemed okay, but she began to spin again. The woman had told us that yellow jackets sometimes bother her, but when she saw the behavior she seemed concerned and said they would keep an eye on her.

Inside, we found a fish tank on the first floor with carp, bass, walleye, and other Illinois species. In a turtle tank, eyes and a snout were the only parts above the water line. Throughout the museum, posters and exhibit show the visitor how to identify the more common butterflies, some of the vanishing species of wildflowers, and common bird nests. A cross section of a tree trunk and graphics cover local and building history.

On the second floor, cages house a Cuban tree frog (invasive species), a box turtle, an American robin missing part of a wing, and a 20-year-old crow who greeted us with, "Bon soir!" (which I took for "What's wrong?"—well, that shows my mind's tendency).

After a while, a visitor came in who attracted the crow's attention. The visitor talked to her, and the crow crouched and stuck her bill through the cage for petting (which made me wonder how the crow experiences that sensation). When she could reach them, the woman also stroked the feathers around her nares. She told us that she is a frequent visitor and loves the crow, although the bird wasn't nearly as keen on the little child with her. She also pointed out a cage with a sign, "Black rat snake coming soon" and told us that, a few months ago, someone had broken into the museum when it was closed and stolen the herps, including snakes and frogs.

A second woman from the museum told us the crow's age and that she had always been in a too-small cage, but that she's resisted attempts to move her to larger accommodations. She has bumblefoot and arthritis. I'm not sure about her entire vocal repertoire, but it includes "Hello!" in addition to "Bon soir!" Corvids are highly intelligent, and, deprived of the company of her peers, this one probably appreciates familiar humans. The robin, on the other hand, was agitated at first but settled down at last and even began pecking rather peevishly (or nervously) at what was left of its food.

Enchanted by the talking crow, J. decided to try to get video of her speaking. She had burst out several times while we watched her, but the moment he pulled out his camera and set it to video, she clammed up—just like a child. Part of her stubborn silence may have been because the crow whisperer had left.

After noting that the third floor is closed off and mysteriously labeled a "private residence" (I imagined ghosts), I left J. with his new friend so I could use the ladies' room. Next to the stairs are photos and explanations about baby and juvenile animals, which suggest that they be left alone. Pinkie squirrels can be returned to the base of the nearest tree, where the mother can retrieve them, and helpless robins returned to the nest if possible. Otherwise, what appear to be baby animals should be left untouched; they have not been abandoned and may even be in the transition phase from parental care to independence. I had asked the first woman if they'd gotten out of animal rehab for space reason or for philosophical ones. She said it was mostly the latter; people would bring in young animals of common species that should have been left alone (like the goldfinch fledgling). The second woman told us that 80 percent or more of animals brought to such places had been ripped from their homes by well-meaning, concerned people who didn't know that they weren't orphans.

I asked about places to walk, so she gave me a Cook County Forest Preserve District map and sketched roughly where the trails are, describing where they lead.

I waited outside for J. and checked out the wildflower and butterfly garden. Two tiger swallowtails were engaged in an epic battle or courtship—it's hard to tell in animals or people—while a brilliant male goldfinch flitted among the lower branches of the trees.

We followed the left-hand path and walked through the woods along the Des Plaines River for perhaps three quarters of a mile, then came out and walked back along the street. J. is not used to the woods, and the mosquitoes bothered his inner city slicker. I was bitten several times on the legs, arms, and face, but I was more bothered by sudden bursts of sunlight in my eyes (we were westbound three hours before sundown) and by the little insects that managed to fly up my nose.

I'm not native to Chicago and don't drive, so the map revealed to me that the forest preserves follow the Des Plaines River and Salt Creek. This explains what I had observed—a number of parks along Harlem Avenue and the lack of cross streets. Now I have seen the Des Plaines River, which is believed to be the travel route of the coyotes that find themselves in places like a Chicago Quiznos. The Des Plaines River connects with the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River, so it is part of an extensive pre-Columbian trade route. In nearly 30 years (gulp!), I've found it difficult to warm up to either Chicago or Illinois, but this waterway's history sounds worth exploration.

After more conversation than I care to go into, we found ourselves at Los Cazadores in Oak Park. I know we've been there before because I recognized the colorful paintings of Indian warriors with what appear to be dead, yet nipply maidens. I'll be there's a wonderful story behind them.

On the way to the Flamingo, we stopped at Treasure Island so I could pick up cat litter. First, however, I took J. through the produce section so I could find a cantaloupe that would prove to me that Ignatius (official dimensions: 11.7 cm by 16.2 cm by 13.9 cm) is more substantial than I realize and therefore must be dealt with. I needed the 3D visual, which impressed me and J. August 18: Farewell to Ignatius.

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