Chicago has a surprising amount of wilderness for a big city.
Our yards and alleyways come alive in Hunting for Frogs on Elston, and Other Tales From Field and Street, a collection of Jerry Sullivan's columns from the Chicago Reader. He discusses wild animals, plants and their habitats with love, sympathy and humor. For example, you are more likely to be bitten to death by a pack of Yorkshire terriers than to be harmed by a massasauga rattlesnake. You'll learn that a squirrel's nest is called a drey and how to tell a monarch from the imposter viceroy butterfly (hint, it's how they hold their wings). Sullivan explains the reason for our region's immense biodiversity is that, unlike other cities, it has a number of different native habitats, each hosting different plants and animals. Because the essays are short, they are perfect for reading on the train or bus.
Joel Greenberg's masterpiece, A Natural History of the Chicago Region, provides an in-depth overview of our lands, plants and animals. This is both one of the saddest and most wonderful books I've ever read. Magnificent prairies, forests and marshes once stretched where you now see concrete and development. Yet there are remnants in our Forest Preserves and other protected areas across the region, and an ongoing movement of ecological restoration to recover them.
Although I found Greenberg's 600-page opus fascinating, I understand that others might wish for something shorter. The consortium of organizations called Chicago Wilderness produced a lovely introduction to our region's natural history, An Atlas of Biodiversity, illustrating the past and present of our prairies, wooded areas, wetlands and bodies of water and their inhabitants. The 2011 edition is online, along with the complete archive of Chicago Wilderness magazine. It covered fascinating topics such as "Bugs of Hyde Park" in Summer 2006, and the Spring 2009 issue dedicated to discovering the Calumet region, or you can visit the library to read the print issues of Chicago Wilderness.