City Along a Flyway

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Welcome to Chicago reads the sign as you exit O’Hare International Airport and head toward the city. It’s the Windy City, Paris on the Prairie, City in a Garden, The Jewel of the Midwest, or as Frank Sinatra sings, “My Kind of Town.” Along with its many nicknames, Chicago has attracted innumerable travelers, and remains set in the migratory paths of many: immigrants, visitors, and wanderers. Here, histories intermingle, but the symbol all our stories share is the striking skyline.

Along with the nearly 40 million annual visitors who crane their necks upward to admire our sensational skyline, the city admits a multitude of less noticed travelers. I’m referring to the 5 million migratory birds who journey through on their routes, north and south.

The first signs of Chicago many of these avian travelers meet, as they wing their way north each Spring, are the deceptively reflective sides of high rises like 300 S. Riverside Plaza. This building is a notorious spot for bird strikes (that is, when birds impact into a building). The expansive glass, a reflection of the outside world, deceives birds. 300 S. Riverside Plaza is a disorienting greeting at best and, more often, a sudden and deadly end to the travels of these migratory species, who are unaccustomed to navigating the steel and glass canyons of Chicago’s loop.

While not your typical welcoming committee, The Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, led by Annette Prince, is a group of hard-working locals who act as guides for the migratory birds trying to wend their way through our city.

Recently, I joined this team of volunteers who arise early to “help migratory birds navigate the loop.” “Help navigate” is a gentle description for the main task at hand: gathering dead and injured birds from the city streets. The dead are collected for data that, among other things, have been integral to the shaping of policy and design changes for bird safety. The living are taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility where they receive the care necessary to send them back on their journeys. These efforts support the conservation of North American migratory bird populations. Sometimes, on Friday mornings as I gather stunned, dying, or already dead birds in a small portion of Chicago’s Loop, the striking skyline that makes this city instantly recognizable assumes more threatening overtones.  In comparison with the infrastructure in place to assist visitors of our own species, we are hardly a welcoming town to visitors with wings.

I am reminded of last summer when I was on the tourist trail showing relatives around the city. In line for the skydeck at the iconic Willis (Sears) tower, I overheard visitors engaging in a common dialogue conducted at major landmarks.

“Where are you from?” A woman asked the couple in line behind me.

“Sri Lanka,” they declared. The whole queue of people within earshot was notably impressed.

“That’s quite a distance to come! And how do you like Chicago?” She hardly needed to ask. With smiles and intense enthusiasm, they assured her that it was a wonderful city.

A whole industry exists to ensure visitors enjoy our town. While I love Chicago and I want this city to thrive, I question whether or not a vital tourist economy is a legitimate indicator of the health of the city. When I witness a waxwing’s eyes go dark as it stiffens on the sidewalk, I find it is difficult to look up at the building towering above and celebrate its magnificence. The Swainson’s Thrush flies from as far as Argentina, but as it sits on the sidewalk in the heart of our city, a swarm of pedestrians bustles by—unaware and unimpressed. Why do we acknowledge the couple from Sri Lanka but ignore birds who visit us biannually?

A Cedar Waxwing found at the base of a building on Wacker Drive

Welcoming wildlife into our cities is not necessarily the cause of the nature nerd (Speaking as a nature nerd, I will acknowledge that many of us rashly discount the city and, instead, wade marshes with binoculars pressed into our eyes, or fight through forests, leaving a wake of chaos, in pursuit of a peaceful animal encounter.) Welcoming wildlife to the city challenges us to put life first. While that may sound simplistic, a value for all life requires a fundamental and long-term shift in the experience and design of our urban environment. Wildlife is not the only life that struggles to contend with the city as it exists today. Upholding care for life as a value driving decision-making in urban communities would transform the built and social landscape faster than individual initiatives aimed at improving any one issue. That may seem like a load of idealism, but people already act upon an ethic for the care of life, in select ways.

There are movements in many cities, for example, to mitigate the hazards of high-rise design for birds. Chicago has been a leader for bird safety, and was the fist U.S. city to implement a “lights out” program which is estimated to protect over ten thousand migratory birds annually. Much of the cost to migratory birdlife could be avoided by thoughtful approaches in the design of greenspaces and barriers such as nets, decals, and other deflectors for reflective facades.

Chicago is a waypoint for migratory birds and, like any port to travelers, the way it is designed will help or hinder voyagers along their routes. As the community that defines Chicago today, we have an opportunity and responsibility to assist the representatives of diverse ecosystems by addressing how our hometown supports life.

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