When people go out at night, it's not to see wildlife. Not around here, at least.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's student body is very fond of partying. Most of the nighttime activity takes place around Green Street, and usually on Friday and Saturday nights. However, there's just as much non-human activity at night, no matter what day it is. Nocturnal animals keep themselves well hidden during the daytime, but when the sun sets, they seem to come out of nowhere, roaming around campus and neighborhoods.
Owls are a common feature of the nighttime. They are predatory birds, and usually catch nocturnal prey like bats or nocturnal rodents. One of the most notable species native to central Illinois is the great horned owl. It has a very large silhouette, and it can often be seen in trees or on telephone poles at night. Its distinguishing feature is the set of feather tufts on the top of its head that are often mistaken for ears. This is where the owl gets its name. Other owls have similar "ear" tufts, like the long-eared owl, and since it has the word "eared" in its name, people often think the feather tufts are ears, when they are not
Opossums vs. possums
Another common sight at night is the Virginia opossum. A common mistake is to call this animal a "possum," but there is a distinct difference between the two. Possums are marsupials native only to Australia
, and while opossums are similar in that they are also marsupials, they are not related. They evolved into a similar ecological niche, but in vastly different parts of the world.
Opossums are usually solitary animals, but they can also be seen with their young. Many people view them as vermin because they often eat out of trash cans in urban areas, but opossums can actually be helpful to humans. Opossums help kill off disease-carrying ticks that land on them, and they are also fairly resistant to rabies compared to raccoons and rodents. They may look a little strange, but opossums do not have a negative effect on humans.
Boatloads of bats
There are also many kinds of bats native to Illinois, including the big brown bat, little brown bat, Indiana bat, northern long-eared bat and the eastern pipstrelle bat. These bats are insectivorous, and you can often see them coming out to hunt around twilight, flying back and forth through the trees. They have a different flight pattern than nocturnal/crepescular birds like nightjars or night hawks, and their wingbeats do not look graceful. They fly in a sort of jerky way, and sometimes you can see the points on the underside of their wings. They use echolocation to find their prey, which means they send sound waves out into the air, and judge where insects are by when the sound waves come back to them. Although it is rare, you can sometimes hear the bats calling out if the frequency of the sound wave is low enough, and it sounds almost like chirping.
There are many things to see at night other than parties and bars at this university, and it only takes a little effort to look. Nocturnal animals hide themselves away during the day, but at night, if you are careful, you might catch a glimpse of one.
Photo: Jo Naylor/Flickr