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A Day at the Havana River Research Laboratory

Public science on the Illinois River

The Nature of Illinois

Fall 1988

The Illinois River country is differ’nt, as some of my relatives might have said. In the 1980s I spent a fair amount of time with Illinois public scientists like those described below, and came to appreciate them and their work.

The lead paragraph was comprehensible in the context of the printed page on which it first appeared. I have juggled the opening paragraphs to make the story plain in this disembodied version


In 1895 Dr Stephen A. Forbes, founding Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey, complained that students, indeed science itself "suffered . . . from lack of opportunity to study nature alive." Thanks to Forbes, the study of nature in Illinois has been very lively indeed ever since. It was largely at Forbes' suggestion that the then-State Natural History Laboratory established in 1894 a biological research station at Havana, on the backwaters of the Illinois River.


It was the first inland aquatic biological station in the country manned and equipped for continuous investigations and the first to dedicate itself to the study of a major river system. Even today, it is still one of only a handful of such stations on the large floodplain rivers, as what was begun on the Illinois River 94 years ago has since been undertaken on the Nile, the Volga, and the Amazon.


For more than 90 years, its scientists have hunted fish from aboard horse-drawn wagons, camped in floating houses, been bombed by birds, dived into water so murky that they had to see with their hands instead of their eyes. "Only certain people like to work in a field station," explains Stephen Havera, a doctor of ecology who is director of the Havana River Research Laboratory on Lake Chautauqua in Mason County. "It's not that plush."


"The creek has never been down this far," Havera observes as he trudges across a footbridge which connects the lab grounds to the shore of Lake Chautauqua The bridge crosses Quiver Creek, which owes its survival in dry years to cool water springs. In the shadow of the bridge a cohort of young channel catfish gorges on minnows. Nearby a gar lies still in the water like a broken log with teeth; a few yards upstream a great blue heron—what Illinois' preeminent nature writer John Madson once described as "a fishspear with an attached bird as a life-support system"—stands at attention.


What a remote field research station cannot provide in plush it makes up for in proximity. "In Champaign, you get into the field maybe once a week, " Havera says, recalling his own experience at the Illinois Water Survey, "and then it takes a two-hour drive to get there " In contrast, the Havana station offers convenient daily access to riverine marshes, floodplain forests, mud flats, and of course the Illinois and (barely 75 miles away) the Mississippi. Says Havera, "It's monitoring the same population and habitat year in and year out that gives you an index to measure variation."


In ecological science, you can't understand the way things are unless you understand how things used to be. Because senior scientific staff have been stationed at Havana almost continuously for nearly a century, they have been able to measure the river's response to a variety of man-made "perturbations," from increased flow from diverted Lake Michigan water to sewage pollution to sedimentation to the introduction of alien species such as the common carp and the Asiatic clam. Havera slaps at a stinging fly which was claiming this spot of shore, then points out that the only reason there is a Lake Chautauqua during the rain-short summer of 1988 is that water is being pumped into it. "Droughts come and go. But we've modified the environment so much. Those fish back there are in a foot of water. In the 1930s they'd be in three feet of water."


Havera is one of three senior scientific staff presently at the Havana lab. His colleagues include Richard Sparks, an aquatic biologist who specializes in mussels and other creatures that live in the bottoms of rivers and lakes, and Frank Bellrose, an ornithologist who has made a lifelong study of the birds which float on and fly above them. They are joined by as many as 19 junior scientists, interns, and support staff, plus farther-flung associates. The lab is isolated physically but not bureaucratically. Ecological research tends to be not just interdisciplinary but interagency in nature. The lab staff works in conjunction with the other Illinois scientific surveys and state universities as well as assorted federal wildlife and environmental agencies


Learning and teaching


In its early years, Survey scientists worked out of houseboats outfitted with beds and stoves which were moored in area lakes. In 1939 permanent quarters were built next to Lake Chautauqua. That small frame building has been outgrown several times since, and a $100,000 addition was recently finished that quadrupled available space. The new 3,500 square feet provide expanded conference and library space, a computer room, even office space for visiting scientists.


Havera is called to the telephone. A plan to fell 79 trees near Rice Lake has excited local controversy, since the trees are near an eagle roost. A meeting is being held that evening to discuss it, and Havera is asked to attend. "My kid's got a ball game tonight," he laments.


Such requests are common. Science intersects recreation, wildlife protection, and environmental protection, and the expertise of the lab's staff is often in demand. Long-term research gets them involved in short-term controversies. "In 1982 there was a big mussel die-off, so mussels became suddenly important, " Havera recalls. "Or it might be Save Peoria Lake!'


Part of the lab's role is to teach as well as learn. Havera appreciates the need for public education, but talking about science is not science. Lab staff have to write press releases, conduct tours for the press, be interviewed on TV, lead seminars for visiting students, give speeches, even identify birds killed in combat with U.S. Air Force planes.


The laboratory's office building is itself an exhibit. The walls are festooned with photos of scientists in straw boaters and neckties collecting mussels the size of dessert plates, of before-and-after scenes of drained or silted-up lakes, of forests of water plants that aren't there anymore and of mud flats which are, of several generations of investigators diving, seining, tagging, and measuring everything that ever swam, flew, crawled, or grew—from eagles to benthic macroinvertebrates. Dr C. A. Kofoid, superintendent of the Havana station from 1895 to 1900, published 1,000 printed pages on what he learned about Illinois River plankton alone.


Havera excuses himself again, to have a word with a colleague who just returned from a morning aboard one of the lab's mini-navy of nine watercraft. Havera describes the channel catfish he'd seen in the creek, adding some distinctly non-icthyological judgments about how one of them might taste on a plate.


"That's Brian Todd," Havera resumes. Todd and co-investigator Frank Dillon are trying to learn more about the movements of the channel cats. Radio transmitters were surgically implanted in some three dozen fish which were then released into area streams. Their locations can be tracked in shallow water from as far away as a half-mile, 24 hours a day, data which should be useful in identifying (and thus possibly expanding) the preferred habitats of this valuable sport and food fish.


"We're doing things now that they didn't have the instruments to do twenty to forty years ago," Havera explains. Gas chromatographs have been used here to analyze the blood chemistry of ducks that have ingested lead shotgun pellets, for example, and computers are invaluable in digesting large amounts of information about the distribution of and fluctuations in waterfowl populations.


Old questions, new answers


Much of the lab's work involves finding new answers to old questions. Writing in 1958, George Bennett noted in the Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin. "Many of the early activities in the management of aquatic resources of the United States were based on premises which later research proved to be inaccurate." For example, corn, buckwheat, Japanese millet, and milo have been the staple foods offered by waterfowl managers since the 1930s, Ducks eat them, certainly. But Havana researchers had established 50 years ago that duck feeding habits varied with available foods. Their preferred natural diet is highly varied, consisting of moist-soil plants such as smartweeds and nutgrasses along with pecans and pin oak acorns. Those foods have largely disappeared, however, leaving waterfowl increasingly dependent on simplified managed diets which, research suggests, are not as nutritional as wild diets. (Ducks fed exclusively on corn, for example, actually lose weight.)


There are new questions which need answers too. Havera leaves the office building and crosses a dusty gravel drive to the facility's wet lab, a former storage building converted for the moment into a combination aquarium and TV studio. The cultured pearl industry in Japan is paying top prices for mussel shell from the Mississippi and the lower Illinois. Commercial musselers have moved onto those streams from Tennessee and Arkansas, taking as much as a thousand tons of shell per year from each. Because mussels are slow to reproduce, wildlife biologists worry that surviving beds may be ruinously over-fished.


The once-rich mussel beds have already been decimated by over-exploitation and sedimentation. A be-aproned Phil Moy stands amid a jungle of cattle troughs and computer screens, the former holding mussels of various species in sand and gravel beds. Such mollusks often offer the only stable substrate on stream bottoms which increasingly consist of oozy mud. The mussels' excreta is itself a food source for certain invertebrates which in turn are fed upon by fish. But the link between mussels and game fish may be even more intimate. "Fish and mussels clearly share a close relationship," says Moy. "Mussels have to parasitize a fish as part of their reproductive cycle, for example, or they can't survive. But we don't know exactly what happens."


To find out, Moy and a colleague set up matched tanks. Mechanical paddles, gravel, and filtered light simulate a stream-bottom environment, half of which is populated by mussels, the other half left bare. A single fish swims in each. A video camera linked to a computer constantly records the fish's position in the tank at one to two second intervals. Different species of fish will be tested under different conditions (including breeding) in simulations of advancing complexity. If mussels do play some specific role in the life cycle of game fish, regulation to restrict commercial musseling might be warranted.


At the mercy of nature


Mussels have always figured prominently on the scientific agenda at Havana. Although of diminished commercial importance, mussels are still vital to diving ducks as food. To the human ecologist, they are vital as pollution monitors. To riverine inhabitants in general they are vital as waste assimilators and purifiers. Their numbers and variety have been decimated by sedimentation and over-harvesting; a 1966 survey by then-director William Starret found only half the species of mussels along the Illinois that had been reported prior to 1900. More modern dangers threaten mussel scientists as much as mussels themselves. In 1983, divers from the lab spent two dangerous weeks diving near Naples, Illinois, playing tag with snags and tow boats as they marked mussels in a study gauging the impact of barge traffic on local shellfish populations.


Ducks under study


"You're at the mercy of nature and the animals when doing field studies," Havera explains as he heads out of the wet lab toward the duck pens. "They tell you when it's time to do it, especially species which are migratory."


Come fall, for example, attention at Havana will shift from the river bottom to the skies. Censuses of waterfowl visiting the Illinois valley have been made weekly between September and April for 50 years, with less comprehensive surveys made of waterfowl and eagles along the Mississippi in years since. Pioneering studies of duck feeding and nesting habits were made at Havana beginning in 1938, as well as research which supported the economic and ecological utility of wildlife refuges. Much of that was done by Frank Bellrose, who has been widely recognized as having done for ducks what Johnny Appleseed did for orchards.


Unfortunately the great flocks of ducks and geese which visit the Illinois and Mississippi valleys have been dwindling. Looking toward the empty water of Lake Chautauqua, Havera says that more than 100,000, perhaps as many as a quarter million ducks (most of them mallards) will alight there in November to rest and feed. As recently as ten years ago, half a million birds could be counted there.


To find out why, an ongoing study of waterfowl management has occupied Havana staff for more than seven years. Waterfowl habitat has been inventoried for the first time since 1955. Food studies done by Bellrose from 1938–40 have been updated with the help of 11,000 birds of 14 species. Banding data amassed since 1922 have been analyzed to chart migration patterns. Distribution of nesting flocks has been compared to data from 1861–1929 to chart the adaptation of species to today's degraded environment.


Less of everything


For the moment, however, the only ducks at the Havana lab are in cages on the grounds. It is a strange menagerie which includes pink wood ducks whose feathers were dyed as part of a study on moulting and breeding behavior.


"A lot of the work essential to the ban on lead shot was done here in these pens, " says Havera. Lead poisoning of ducks which ingested spent hunters' shot was recognized as long ago as 1870, but the precise physiology of the condition is still not fully understood. The rates at which such shot is ingested, the effects of "second dosing" on wild birds, and comparisons of lead levels in dead and live birds have all been investigated in recent years.


The impending federal ban on the use of lead shot is one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy chronicle. There are fewer species, fewer habitats, fewer lakes than when the lab first opened—less of everything in fact except pollution and sediment. The backwater lakes and sloughs so vital to the river ecosystem are filling up and converting to grass and then floodplain forest. "We've done in 50 years what nature would have taken 1,000 to do, " Havera says. Even the lead shot ban (scheduled to take full effect in 1992) did not become law until more than a century after the problem was diagnosed. "How many ducks—and eagles which ate poisoned ducks—died in that time? "


Havera quickly adds, "How many eagles and ducks will that ban save over the next 100 years? " The circumstances of wildlife research leave the scientists based in Havana doing more postmortems than preventive medicine. The future may see more efforts to restore what could not be protected. If that happens, the knowledge accumulated here will provide the blueprint.


Until then there will always be more to learn, and people who will want to do the field research needed to learn it. "People do their best work, " says Havera. "where they're happiest." ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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