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Looking up at the 300 birds that migrate through Chicago’s skies

   Imagine for a moment you’re covered in black, white and orange feathers. You measure four and a half inches from beak to tail and weigh half an ounce. After wintering in the highlands of Peru, an instinctual alarm clock goes off in your head and you take to wing. You fly north, mostly at night, guided by a combination of the stars and some internal compass. By the time you reach Chicago, you’ve flown 3,800 miles in just a few weeks. You’ve lost one-third of your tiny body weight. You’re exhausted, but still there’s a long way to go to your breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada.
   Fortunately, a city famed for its world-class accommodations has recently upgraded and expanded its suite of avian oases to provide every Blackburnian warbler (that’s you) and more than 300 other species of migrating birds a safe, much- needed place to rest and feed.
   At first glance, the country’s third most populous city might seem like one of the least bird-friendly places on the planet. However, Chicago lies at a strategic point along the Mississippi Flyway, a super highway through which more than five million birds migrate every spring and fall. For this reason, Mayor Richard M. Daley signed the Urban Conservation Treaty for Migrating Birds in 2000, an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help protect migrating birds through education and habitat improvement.
   The following year, the Chicago Park District established its first official bird sanctuaries within three lakefront parks: Lincoln Park, Burnham Park and Jackson Park. Habitat improvements have since occurred at 50 park sites all across the city, according to Zhanna Yermakov, natural areas manager for the park district. Among the most recent is a major expansion of the McCormick Bird Sanctuary. The original sanctuary, located directly south of McCormick Place, encompassed six acres of prairie habitat, constructed partly atop the convention center’s underground parking garage. Newly planted with more native prairie plants, as well as clusters of native shrubs and trees, the sanctuary now extends an additional 32 acres south to 39th Street.
   This kind of habitat improvement comes at a critical time for birds. A recent report released by the U.S. Department of the Interior reveals that populations of many birds have declined precipitously over the past 40 years. Populations of grassland birds, for instance, have declined more than 40 percent, with some common species, such as Eastern meadowlarks, declining by more than 70 percent.
   The number one reason for these declines is the loss of quality habitat. Over the past four decades, more land has been developed and natural areas have suffered the effects of pollution, neglect, invasive species and climate change. Throughout the greater Chicagoland region, however, there is a growing body of evidence that expanding and improving natural habitat is reversing some of those downward population spirals. Joe Lill is a trumpeter and music professor by trade, but he’s also the keeper of the official bird species list at North Park Village Nature Center. “Once the park district started doing restoration there,” he says of the center’s 46-acre nature preserve, “the bird species count jumped by 30 species per year to 115.”
   Among the 489 different bird species Lill has seen since he began birding 25 years ago are common favorites like the Connecticut warbler—another tiny, long-distance migrant songbird—and rare visitors such as the American avocet –a tall, stilt-legged shorebird with a hypodermic needle-like beak turned up at the tip.
   At Columbus Park on the West Side of Chicago, 13-year-old Aaron Gyllenhaal counts white-fronted geese among his favorite birds. One of the few species that benefits from turf grass habitat, these heather-colored birds sometimes use the park’s nine-hole golf course as a stopover snack bar on their way between Central America and the Arctic Circle. As part of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses, portions of the course boast naturalized habitat, which supports healthy populations of goldfinches, sparrows and even the occasional Eastern meadowlark.
   This past year, the park district undertook restoration of the park’s lagoon and woodland area, which included using the controlled use of fire to eliminate invasive species and the planting of additional native grasses and wildflowers. This spring, Aaron, along with his brother Ethan and their father, Eric, who together serve as the official bird monitors for Columbus Park, will be out there with their binoculars eager to record what new and greater number of birds the restored area safely harbors.

Published: April 09, 2010
Issue: 2010 Spring Green Issue