The Chicago Loop can be a nightmare at rush hour. And apparently it's no picnic during migration season either. Just ask a little bird.
Tens of thousands of species like this blue-winged warbler will head through town this month on their way to warmer climes. Though many of them won't make it very far.
Birds tend to migrate at night, possibly using the stars or magnetic fields as their guide. We have yet to gain a complete understanding of how it happens. But what we do know is that bright lights from skyscrapers seem to throw them off. Like moths to a flame, birds are drawn to the light and either end up striking building windows in confusion or circle the lights to the point of exhaustion.
Luckily, with help from volunteers and major cooperation from city-wide building managers, the future is looking a lot brighter. Or, in this case, beautifully darker.
"It's really amazing how receptive people have been," says CBCM director and Chicago Audubon board member Annette Prince. "Efforts to dim city lights started back in the 90s. But things really picked up as members of our project spread the word about the hazards for migratory birds.
"They basically started contacting building representatives and asking if they would be willing to cooperate and turn down their lights during high migration times. Most of them were glad to participate because they'd seen so many birds injured or dead on the sidewalks. By 2004, Chicago became the first city in the country whose skyline went completely dark for migration."
Lights Out Chicago!
, as it's now called, is a voluntary partnership estimated to save the lives of more than 10 thousand birds each year. Prince and her colleagues hope that the city will soon adopt the program as an ordinance.
A race against the clock
In the meantime, a group of over 100 CBCM volunteers are hitting the streets before sunrise each morning during fall and spring migration. Their mission: to look for fallen birds.
The cause for alarm is that many of the birds that strike buildings survive. They are usually lying on the sidewalk unable to move because of injury. As soon as the sun rises, they become easy prey for gulls off the coast of Lake Michigan and other predators like hawks and crows (not to mention street steamers, foot traffic and other city regulars).
"We have volunteers that work downtown and those that wake up as early as 3 a.m. to head from the suburbs to make it to their 4 a.m. route," says Prince. "It's really admirable how these people, especially the ones who don't live in the city, are so committed."
When CBCM first started, they only had about a half dozen volunteers scouring the streets. Now, a network of over 100 individuals head out in teams of six to 12 people each morning during migration to cover a full square mile of the city center. Armed with paper bags, nets and flashlights, these dedicated teams intercept about 2,000 injured birds every year.
Prince explained that CBCM transports a majority of them to Willowbrook Wildlife Center
, where they undergo assessment and rehabilitation. Eighty percent of the birds injured do indeed recover and are released in safer environments to continue on their migratory path.
Recoveries often happen quickly, with birds back on wing within a day. This quick turnaround is key to survival. Without the quick response of CBCM volunteers and speedy treatment at the rehab center, the birds might not survive at all -- or might recover too slowly and miss the window of warm weather needed to make their journey.
The ones left behind
As expected, the collision of tiny birds into massive buildings often proves fatal. Volunteers collect more than 3,000 dead birds off the sidewalks each year. However, it's still not the end of the line for these feathered friends. CBCM also partners with The Field Museum
, which uses the specimens for research and educational purposes. By recording the species found and the time they were collected, researchers can learn more about migration and migratory patterns.
University of Chicago PhD student Natasha Bloch collaborates with CBCM to gather bird specimens as well. She is interested in the evolution of colored vision and collects DNA from the birds' eyes to inform her study.
How you can help
(in Chicago and beyond)
It is estimated that one billion birds die each year from window collisions in North America alone. These are critical species moving between South and Central America and the United States and Canada, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles twice a year to reach their winter and summer homes. Collision is the leading cause of death for these birds -- second only to habitat loss.
"The goal in all this is prevention," says Prince. "We hope to educate more people about how to respond to injured birds, and also create awareness of responsible building and lighting practices. Ultimately, it's key to influence future architectural design."
If you’d like to help Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, visit their web site or call the hotline at 773-988-1867. The project is always in need of more volunteers to assist with rescue efforts. Training is provided.
Please post a comment if you are aware of other efforts.
Photos: (from top)
Blue-winged warbler: Annette Prince
Volunteer with net: Annette Prince
Bird rehab: Willowbrook Wildlife Center
Volunteer with bird: Chicago Bird Collision Monitors