One overwhelming early morning, Flint Creek Wildlife treated 129 birds that had been gingerly collected off the sidewalks of downtown Chicago. It was fall migration season, and songbirds of all species were at it again, flying south for the winter and – many of them – along the way bumping into the city’s famously picturesque skyline.
Nature is full of jaw-dropping examples of wildlife learning to adapt to the city (you’ve heard of birds that sing over car horns and coyotes that comprehend traffic). But this is not one of them. Chicago, like Toronto, happens to have grown up beneath one of the four major North American migratory flyways that birds follow up and down the continent each spring and fall. And a migratory flyway is too big a thing in nature to mold itself around our metropolises.
That means that most nights about this time of year, birds collect on the ground in Chicago, about half of them still living, half of them not. The only reason you rarely see one is because groups like Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation make a point of getting there first.
"It’s a busy, bustling city, right?" says Dawn Keller, who founded Flint Creek eight years ago. "When people are walking from the train station to work they’re not necessarily paying attention to a little 8-gram bird that’s sitting on the sidewalk." This is why volunteers go out before dawn, before the city wakes up. Plus there are other problems that come with daylight. "I remember one time coming around a corner and having something catch my peripheral vision," Keller continues. "It was this little bird flapping as this gull was trying to swallow it whole."
Keller's has got to be the saddest volunteer job in the city: collecting warblers and kinglets in brown paper bags. Flint Creek has gotten to where it’s able to save about 90 percent of the initial crash survivors it finds, so this story has a sort-of happy ending. Keller says you have to focus on those guys. "If you didn’t," she says, "you’d never want to do this."
In a given migratory season, five to eight million birds pass through Chicago, from 80-85 different species, most of them flying at night. And it’s perversely fascinating to realize what this city looks like from their point of view:
Birds are attracted to light, and lights in reflection – as with this Chicago nightscape – can be tremendously disorienting. Even when office towers dim their lights during migratory season, birds are still drawn to antennas.
"They’ll fly around the antenna, around the antenna, around the antenna," Keller says. "And they sort of get trapped in these beams of light. They don’t want to fly back out into the dark again, and they’ll actually die of exhaustion."
The problems birds flying during the daytime encounter are equally depressing, as this image suggests:
Birds are prone to confuse reflective office towers with natural scenery, or to think that they can land on an indoor potted plant if the windows are clear enough. A lobby with glass walls on all sides – where you can see through one side and straight out another – really toys with the bird mind. Even we’re not sure what we’re looking at here:
Migrating birds interact with all these buildings in different ways each night, depending on weather and wind and other factors we don’t understand.
"We have a sense of what nights are going to be heavy and what nights aren’t, but it’s not a pure science," Keller says. "There’s so much that we don’t understand about why there are nights when there are birds that hit the buildings, and why sometimes they pass through the city safely."
Keller keeps her eye each night on a radar image of the region. On a really clear night, small red dots on the radar screen actually appear as birds approach the city from the north. That information helps Keller round up volunteers. Then, before the sun rises, each one of them traces a designated route through the city, scooping up the live birds along with the dead ones. The birds are then transported to a facility donated by the Chicago Park District on the old Meigs Field airport just east of the Loop.
Nearly all of these birds have suffered some kind of head trauma, first in colliding with a building and then in falling to the ground. Flint Creek gives them anti-inflammatory drugs to halt the swelling in their little bird brains. Remarkably, about 90 percent of the surviving birds are ready to be released within two days, back on their way south (Flint Creek does this from a treatment facility outside of the city, so no, the rehabbed birds are not flying right back into the same obstacles). Some of the others may spend the winter in Chicago only to be released the following spring. The dead ones are transferred nearby to the Field Museum of Natural History for research.
From the rescuer’s point of view, all of this sounds exhausting.
"The first year that we were in operation, every single animal that didn’t make it I would get so upset, and I found that the first year was this emotional rollercoaster,” Keller says. She sounded more serene when we spoke last week. "For me – and what I tell our volunteers when they start with us – I think the best way to deal with this is to know that we gave them the best possible chance."
If that sentiment doesn’t make you feel better, now that we’ve told you about this ridiculously sad side of the city, there are also the survivors, who are pretty darn cute. Keller sent us images of several of them about to be released back to migration. Think of them as the birds who took on the city and won:
Tennessee Warbler courtesy Philip Hampel