One morning in downtown Chicago, standing near Calder’s Flamingo sculpture waiting for the post office to open, a gray-haired woman strode up to me holding out one of her gently clenched fists. Thinking I was a bird monitor (I was carrying a bag and wearing a backpack, but had no net), she offered me the bird she held, and I replied, “That’s a Black-and-White Warbler, but I’m not a bird monitor.” We chatted for a moment and she walked away toward the lake to release the bird. I posted my package and headed toward my office. En route I found a grounded warbler, still alive, by one of the buildings. I put it in my cloth shopping bag and decided to also go to the park to release the bird. As I headed east, lo and behold, another living (oven)bird lying stunned in the middle of the sunny sidewalk. I added that one to the bag and soon released them under some trees in the relative quiet of morning.
I thought it was too early for birds to be passing through, but I knew the Loop, with its walls of glass and lights everywhere was a trap for many migratory birds. I knew the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (CBCM) group existed and that I should have contacted them at their hotline number, 773-988-1867. At Wild Things, I used to walk by their table, peering sidelong with interest; I would see volunteers in the streetlight shadows as I left my train and walked to my office. I had thought I didn’t have time to be involved, but now I was seeing birds everywhere and I decided to do something.
The CBCM operates under the auspices of the Chicago Audubon Society. I visited the CBCM website, attended a training session, and was soon out monitoring one morning a week before work. Every day during fall and spring migration, monitors scour routes as commuters dash to work. My first day out, I was trained by a woman who comes in from the suburbs very early to work her routes, then takes the train back home. I worked with a pair of sisters who systematically scan their route in tandem, and enjoyed further tutoring by two veterans from Hyde Park and Rogers Park.
It’s an exhilarating experience, helping the birds, and it’s a social activity with humans too, getting to know other monitors, building managers, and locals who call the hotline to report a bird in need, all culminating in an annual gathering at the Field Museum, where the dead birds collected end up in the research collection. Living birds, incidentally, are brought to Willowbrook Wildlife Center for rehabilitation and release. Even experienced birders will be astounded by the variety of birds they’ll find passing through our city, ones that rarely stop.
What the organization needs most is volunteers, so if you’re considering it, try attending a training session. If you’re a seasoned birder, great, but if you don’t know a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker from a Brown Creeper, that’s okay too. Not only do we rescue birds and contribute to research, but we keep pressure on the city to continue and expand its Lights Out program. With more volunteers, a lot of ground outside of Chicago’s Loop could be covered.
And don’t forget that there’s a year-round hotline. Call 773-988-1867 if you find an injured bird.