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posted: 4/17/2012 3:01 PM

Willowbrook naturalist 'living the dream'

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  • Jack MacRae, naturalist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, holds Henna, a red-tailed hawk and permanent resident at the center. MacRae works to train the animals used in educational programs, interacts with visitors and studies patterns in nature for the post he has held at Willowbrook since 1996.

       Jack MacRae, naturalist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, holds Henna, a red-tailed hawk and permanent resident at the center. MacRae works to train the animals used in educational programs, interacts with visitors and studies patterns in nature for the post he has held at Willowbrook since 1996.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Jack MacRae, naturalist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, holds out a great plains rat snake for Naomi Argo, 7, to touch on a visit to the center this month with her dad, Victor Argo of Aurora.

       Jack MacRae, naturalist at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, holds out a great plains rat snake for Naomi Argo, 7, to touch on a visit to the center this month with her dad, Victor Argo of Aurora.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 

Jack MacRae knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time he was a kindergartner running around catching snakes and looking for frogs.

He got his first job as a naturalist at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History in 1979. Since 1996, MacRae has been a naturalist at DuPage County Forest Preserve's Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, helping visitors and animals get better acquainted with each other.

"I'm one of the rare people who enjoys going to work," MacRae said. "We like to say that we're living the dream."

If you've been to Willowbrook, you've probably met MacRae, since his multifaceted work keeps him in constant contact with visitors, school groups and Scout troops who come to learn about the animals.

MacRae introduces residents to animals like hawks and kestrels, and answers any questions they have about local wildlife.

The question MacRae said he's heard for "the 1,000th time this year," of course, is how our record-breaking winter and spring temperatures affected nature locally.

"These unprecedented temperatures affect nature in such complex ways that it's difficult to predict," he said.

Local vegetation bloomed up to five weeks early, he said, adding that insects like ticks, mosquitoes and wasps also arrived early. Some birds even started early migration -- but he says this is where things get a bit more tricky, with some birds moving early and others still on schedule.

"Are the birds coming from Central America aware we were having 80 degree weather? Probably not," he said. "But birds from our south might know. Migration patterns also depend on the birds' food source."

Right now, when MacRae is not with visitors, he spends his workday with four birds who won't be migrating anywhere because they are injured.

Willowbrook recently became home to two kestrels and two red-tailed hawks who cannot survive in the wild. Typically, MacRae said, Willowbrook aims to rehab the animals and get them back into their natural habitat.

"That's our whole goal," he said. "But some come in with a permanent disability and we must make a decision if we can use them in an educational program."

That means testing the animals to see if they are approachable, or if they will agree to tasks like standing on a trainer's glove for display.

"If they are amiable, we can use them as an ambassador for their species," MacRae said. "We can teach our residents about things like the role of raptors, predators and prey, and how everything is connected. Having that magical bird there in person is so much more valuable than holding up a picture or looking at computer screens. We are always trying to get people away from those screens."

In addition to encouraging residents to get away from their TVs and computers and into nature, MacRae also works to change their thinking, too.

He said Willowbrook staff is always emphasizing the value nature provides to people through recreation, whether it's activities like fishing or canoeing, or even just eating lunch by Herrick Lake near Wheaton.

He also likes to remind visitors that nature has always provided inspiration for art as well, whether its through photography, painting or sculpture.

"When people see empty land without a building on it, they often think there's nothing there and its not worth anything," MacRae said. "And we think quite the opposite. We know they are not making land anymore so -- what we do have and what is saved -- it's important that people recognize the value of what's conserved."

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