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the Courier News

Taking a Walk on the Mild Side

By: Dave Gathman

March 11, 2012 3:45AM

Weathercasters tell us that “meteorological spring” begins not March 21 but on March 1.

This year, following a December through February that often felt more like a spring than a winter in the Fox Valley, that has been easy to believe. And never easier than last Wednesday and Thursday, when the mercury hovered around the mid-60s degrees. With sunshine.

But if humans, with all our brain power, can be so easily fooled about the calendar, what is this unusual weather doing to local plants and animals? And what will that mean for the next three months when it comes to fighting off pests, nourishing a garden, enjoying wildlife — or dodging tornadoes?

The good news

Yes, the winter that just ended (meteorologically) ended up being a powerful advertisement for global warming — though an advertisement that might have been more convincing if the winter just a year before had not been one of our coldest and snowiest. Northern Illinois temperatures averaged 5 degrees above average for December-February, while snowfall was a whopping 75 percent below average. It was the warmest winter since 1932.

And we can expect more of the same in this new season, according to Paul Pastelok, leader of the long-range forecasting team at Pennsylvania-based He predicts that spring 2012 will be the warmest since 2004 across most of the United States.

Around the Great Lakes, “the spring temperatures will start out well above normal but may head into a back-and-forth pattern for April and early May, more of a typical spring,” the forecaster said. “Snow chances will be limited through March, with a small chance for a couple of events in April.”

Pastelok predicts that overall, despite some cool periods and chances of snow, the Chicago area will have above-normal temperatures and near-normal precipitation.

The bad news

But if that sounds like good news for man, beast and plant, it could hide an ugly underside, Pastelok said. The AccuWeather forecasters think all that heat energy on land is likely to team with an unusually warm Gulf of Mexico to produce more tornadoes and violent weather than most years. And so, far March seems determined to prove them right, as just the first two days of this month produced as many tornadoes as the entire month does in a typical year.

“Areas that seemed to miss out on frequent severe weather last year may see an uptick this year,” meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said.

He predicted more frequent bouts of rain and severe weather will begin this month in the Deep South, then move northward in April and May to the mid-Mississippi and Ohio valleys, which include Illinois.

Put away trowel

Does all this past and predicted warmth mean it’s time to start planting those tomatoes and geraniums?

Not if you know anything about Illinois weather.

According to a 1988 study by the National Climatic Data Center, there’s a 90 percent chance of getting another 32-degree night as late as April 14 in Aurora and as late as April 18 in DeKalb. (The feds didn’t calculate the odds for Elgin, the Dundees or Hampshire.)

In fact, even if you hold off on that planting almost two whole months more, until May 17 in Aurora and May 19 in DeKalb, you still have one chance in 10 that your tender new plants will be nipped by frost.

That means, “Put down the trowel until mid-May,” advises state water survey climatologist Jim Angel on

The best rule for a gardener is to remember that nature in Illinois is fickle. Never forget how those gorgeous mid-60-degree days last week were bracketed by snowfall and sleet on one side and near-freezing nights on the other.

Fatal trickery

Unable to consult state and federal climate tables, some plants and wildflowers have been sorely misled by these temps. Thinking spring has already arrived, many annual flowers have begun to prematurely push up stalks. Some trees have begun to prematurely bud out their spring leaves.

These plants and trees may pay for their eagerness, warns landscaper Patricia Hill, who is Elgin’s native plants guru and the keeper of

Touring her own almost-all-native-plant yard on Orange Street in Elgin, Hill said, “I have a winter aconite eranthis hyemalis that has actually been blooming since mid-February. Some of my snowdrops are blooming, too, now. This week they had flowers covered with snow.

“Both these are early flowers. But they shouldn’t be this early.”

At Tekakwitha Woods Forest Preserve south of South Elgin, nature programs manager Valerie Blaine said a worker at one of the Kane County preserves reported that honeysuckles were putting out leaves in February.

Blaine said some plants can weather a frost even after their flowers or leaves have appeared, while others can’t.

“The first wildflowers are sending out chutes in the forest preserves,” Blaine said. “But if frost comes, they will be protected by being underneath the insulating leaf litter from last autumn. That’s a good reason, by the way, not to rake up all the leaves in your yard at home.”

Bugs and animals

Brad Lundsteen, who makes his living by ridding houses of pests such as raccoons and bats and yellowjackets, knows that the warm winter has made a big difference in Illinois’ animal world. And the bank account of his Suburban Wildlife Control business is healthier because of it.

“Our calls didn’t really slow down for winter,” Lundsteen said. “I get lots of skunk and raccoon calls, and lately there have been squirrels getting into attics.”

Because of the warmth, Lundsteen said, skunks and raccoons spent less time in a semi-sleepy torpor. They also started making babies sooner. “Skunks don’t usually mate until mid-February, but I was already getting skunk calls in December.”

On the other hand, Lundsteen said, he has been getting fewer complaints about mice because “the cold weather usually drives them into houses. But this year, they were content to stay in their burrows outside.”

Lundsteen believes the spring will see more pesky skunks, raccoons, squirrels and yellowjackets than normal because fewer froze or starved over the winter. He said he also has been getting a surprising number of calls to remove bats from houses.

“There have been reports of a lot of out-of-the-ordinary wildlife activity” in the Kane County forest preserves, Blaine said. “I was walking in Pingree Grove Forest Preserve last month and found a garter snake on the trail. I thought it might be dead, but I picked it up and warmed it, and the snake began to move. Normally, snakes would be underground all winter in a chamber called a hibernaculum.

“Chipmunks were seen last month. During one warm snap in January, we saw insects flying around. Sandhill cranes were seen, which means they probably never migrated this year. Raccoons were seen in heat in January, which is at least a month early.”

Blaine said the only animal species that truly hibernate in our area are the woodchuck and the 13-lined ground squirrel.

She said breeding early could either increase or decrease the population of animals such as skunks and raccoons. If the weather gets very cold again, more of the babies could die. But the mothers also could have time to go into heat more times over the summer and produce more litters than usual.

The idea that robins are a dependable first sign of spring is not true at all, Blaine said. Actually, she said, many robins stay in Illinois all winter. “But one real sign of spring is when they and other birds start to vocalize. We’ve been hearing more bird songs lately.”

Not every critter has profited equally from the warmth. Blaine said the lack of snow may have given predators such as coyotes, owls and foxes an advantage over prey species such as mice, voles and squirrels.

“When there are no leaves, mice and voles depend on snow to conceal them from the animals who want to eat them. They can get around using tunnels under the snow, and the snow also helps to keep them warmer than if they were exposed to the open air. As we go into spring, we may see that an imbalance has developed, with not enough prey and too many predators.”

Bring on bugs

“The ground never froze this year, which is scary,” landscaper Hill said. “The frost line in our winters usually gets 3 feet deep. I’m afraid that this year we will see (harmful) insects that normally would have been killed by the winter.”

“We depend on the cold to control some pests,” agrees Blaine.

Especially likely to be worse than usual in 2012, she said, are stinging yellowjacket hornets (which often nest in the walls of homes and which many people misidentify as “bees”) and leaf-devouring Japanese beetles.

Yellowjacket colonies usually die in the fall. But newly hatched queens mate at that time, find some warm hiding place and try to survive the winter on their own. If she doesn’t freeze to death, each pregnant queen starts a whole new colony in the spring. By August, each could hold 3,000 of the pesty, painful bugs.

Japanese beetles begin their lives as wormlike grubs, living underground and eating roots. Blaine said many of them, too, normally end up being killed by deep frosts. If fewer grubs froze, there could be more of the shiny-looking beetles chewing on our trees this summer.

At least those two pests are already familiar to us. But if global warming really does prevail and Illinois’ climate stays warmer most winters, Hill said, she fears that whole new pests will find northern Illinois to be a nice place to live.

“For example, we don’t get many termites around here because it gets too cold,” Hill said. “We don’t have many poisonous snakes because winters are too cold. But if winters like this become a trend ...”

“This winter has been a big tease,” Blaine said. “It makes us expect a warm spring, too, which we may not get.

“When you live in Illinois, the name of the game is to be flexible. I keep three different sets of clothing in my car, for three kinds of weather.”

Copyright © 2012 — Sun-Times Media, LLC

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