Willamette University

Willamette's Hidden Ecology

Flowers at Willamette

By Sarah Evans

The squirrels, ducks and cherry trees hog all the attention.

But the 60 acres that make up the Willamette University campus teem with all sorts of flora and fauna. Some of it is hidden away in quiet corners or behind showier landmarks, like blooming rhododendrons and stately brick buildings. Much of Willamette’s most interesting ecology, however, is right in plain sight.

And we’re talking about more than the Mill Stream and the Martha Springer Botanical Garden.

“If you’re hurrying across campus and not really paying attention, you don’t notice many of the things that live and grow here,” says grounds manager Jim Andersen. “But when you do pay attention, there’s tons of interesting wildlife and plants to see.”

Consider the animals. The campus may be in the middle of a city, but with the Willamette River just seven blocks away — a relatively undeveloped section of river at that — some pretty wild species make their way over.

And when they arrive, these animals find a verdant park full of small prey and attractive plants that catch their eye.

“Every single thing on our campus has been planted by our staff and our students over time,” says biology professor David Craig. “Very few plants arrived on their own. That’s why the visiting animals are so exciting. We’re constructing and reconstructing the image of our campus, literally, in our grounds.”

What follows is a look at our favorite lesser-known aspects of the campus ecosystem. But there are plenty of others waiting to be discovered. You just have to take some time to look.

This tree is a real gem in terms of its size, the creatures it attracts

Respect Your Elders

Forget the Star Trees. Next time you’re walking around campus, meander over toward the University Apartments and gaze up at the seven-story-tall Oregon white oak.

As you marvel at its wide canopy of gnarled branches, imagine you’re Jason Lee, just arriving in the Oregon Territory, searching for a good spot to start a mission — and possibly seeing this very tree, though it was much smaller then.

Based on the oak’s several-foot-wide trunk, Craig estimates it’s about 200 years old. That makes the tree, in his mind, “the most important individual on our campus.”

“It’s older than anyone here,” he says. “We talk a lot about our values around sustainability. This tree is a real gem in terms of its size, the creatures it attracts, and how it represents many decisions other people made to leave it there and not turn it into firewood.”

What exactly does it attract? Despite noise from the nearby roadway, the tree’s out-of-the-way location and scarce visitors make it a favorite spot for red-tailed hawks to munch on their recently captured prey.

A few of the oak’s more prominent, yet often unnoticed, younger relatives tower over the parking lot adjacent to Sparks Athletic Center. Craig estimates those spring chickens are in the 150-year range.

So the next time one pops your car hood with an acorn, don’t get mad — show some respect. They’ve been here longer than almost anyone else in these parts.

The No-Ivy League

Willamette is known for prestige and academic rigor, but we’re no Ivy League — and that’s on purpose.

The ivied walls spotted on many older college campuses don’t exist at Willamette. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find an ivy leaf anywhere but a few spots along the Mill Stream and near the graduate schools and Sparks Athletic Center.

Andersen and his grounds crew have worked tirelessly to eradicate English ivy from campus. The invasive plant is rampant across western Oregon — it grows quickly and displaces more beneficial natives.

“We keep plugging away at removing it a little bit at a time,” Andersen says. “It takes forever, and it’s one of those things that’s a labor of love. You’ve got to have determination.”

Another reason for the grounds crew’s dedication that Andersen feels the ivy is just plain boring compared to the rainbow of flowers and shrubs they’ve been replacing it with.

“People used to drive by on 12th Street and not even realize we were here because we were hidden behind a wall of ivy and arborvitae,” he says. “Now we’ve opened that up and planted things that get folks’ attention. I call it the ‘pow’ factor.”

The red-tailed hawk hunting a squirrel

Winged Wonders

Kingfishers, goldfinches, wrens, juncos, chickadees, bushtits, scrub jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings — if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll spot many more birds at Willamette than the ever-visible crows and ducks.

In fact, 45 species of birds make it to campus on a regular basis, Craig says. And he’s sighted at least 70 species in the past decade.

Sometimes they put on quite a show, like the young great blue heron that recently spent several weeks bathing and fishing in the Mill Stream, or the hundreds of Canada geese that arrive every winter and engage in honking matches with the ducks.

Perhaps none are more dramatic than the red-tailed hawks that swoop down to snap up a tasty squirrel, much to the excitement — or revulsion — of students heading to class.

But many of the birds are more discreet as they hop from plant to plant scooping up seeds. Some are too small to notice immediately, like the two species of hummingbirds that make campus home: the Rufous and the Anna’s hummingbird.

If you’re wondering where to find all the birds, just look for Craig. When he’s out on campus with his binoculars pointed skyward, there’s likely a spectacular winged creature nearby.


Good Enough to Eat

Need a tomato or two for your salad? Want some blueberries for a snack, or fresh herbs to spice up a dinner recipe? You can find these and other edibles on campus — if you know where to look.

The Martha Springer Botanical Garden has long been the site of a variety of fruits and herbs. And for years, groundskeeper Alfonso Guzman has sprinkled hot-pepper plants in various spots around campus.

Andersen, like many, enjoys searching for them. “They’re usually in the back and kind of hidden,” he says. “They’re pretty because they’re ornamental, but they’re also really, really hot. They’re not for the faint of heart.”

Andersen and his team have dabbled with a wider variety of edible plants recently, partly due to students’ increased interest in food gardening. One newly landscaped area on the south side of Matthews Hall features tomato and pepper plants, as well as lemon verbena for tea. Newer still are several apple trees and a fig tree across the Mill Stream from Jackson Plaza.

If you see edible fruit on campus, feel free to pick and enjoy it. But watch out for those peppers.

Blue heron

Creatures of the Night

Unless you enjoy taking midnight strolls across campus, or you were one of those students who got up strangely early (we’re looking at you, rowers), you probably haven’t seen too many of the other critters that visit Willamette.

That’s because they only venture out in the dark of night, long after dusk.

Possums and raccoons are a common sight at that time. Hit the Mill Stream in the early morning hours and you’ll likely find ring-tailed creatures rummaging for crayfish.

Andersen has spotted deer on Brown Field, and Canada geese sometimes land by the hundreds on the Quad once the sun is down. One shy species of duck, the common merganser, typically only makes an appearance early in the morning.

Once the sun begins to rise, this menagerie of wildlife heads back into hiding and is replaced by another creature: the sleepy-eyed college student toting a cup of coffee.