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Mitch Smith/MEDILL

Each morning before the sun rises, volunteers comb downtown streets for migratory birds that flew into skyscrapers. Medill Reports accompanied Annette Prince, the group's leader, on a recent patrol.

Angels seeking wings

by Mitch Smith
Oct 16, 2012


Mitch Smith/MEDILL

Annette Prince, leader of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, patrols near the Chicago River. Two days each week, she rises before the sun to search for birds that flew into  downtown buildings.

It’s 6:30, and predawn blackness is still cloaking the city on a windy, see-your-breath kind of morning.

The corner of Franklin and Randolph streets is empty, except for a woman with an embroidered baseball hat, tan vest and green mesh net that looks like something a 7-year-old might use to snare butterflies.

Meet Annette Prince, a suburban speech pathologist who doubles as the commandant of 100 volunteers who wake up hours early during the fall to scrape warblers and sparrows off the pavement. About a dozen of the monitors are on patrol each morning during migration.

The work isn’t glamorous. The hours suck. Many days, so does the weather. But the payoff comes when they rescue a wounded bird, perhaps saving it from a painful death at the feet of hurried commuters.

For the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, that’s enough.

In a 30-minute period, Prince fields at least a half-dozen calls reporting bird strikes in the Loop and on the Near North Side.

A hotel employee calls to report a strike. While Prince is still on the phone, the worker watches a seagull swoop in and carry off the fallen bird. But as other calls follow, Prince notes the location and then contacts the volunteer patrolling that area.

The monitors know their battle is often a losing one. Even on days when Prince and her fellow volunteers pick up a hundred birds, the fact is that most collision victims don’t survive and aren’t rescued.

As birds migrate south for the winter or north for the summer, using the lakeshore as a natural compass, they encounter Chicago’s sea of concrete and glass.

It’s a foreign environment for the winged migrants, fascinated with the skyscraper lights and oblivious to the fact that it’s a poor idea to attempt to land in a potted plant behind glass doors. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that 300 million to 1 billion birds die annually in strikes with buildings.

Birds that frequent the city tend to learn the physics of flying in an area with windows, Prince said. Only rarely does she find a wounded seagull or pigeon, birds that are omnipresent in Chicago. But the non-resident species that pass through town aren’t as street savvy. Thousands flutter to their deaths each week after colliding with Chicago skyscrapers during the migrations.

The bird monitors, who organized about a decade ago, persuaded downtown building owners to turn off their lights overnight. That helped curtail the deaths. The monitors also started working with janitors, security guards and property managers who call to report a bird strike and arrange a pickup of the body.

But potted plants in lobbies, sheets of highly reflective glass and sub-optimal lighting perpetuate the problem, Prince said. Many of the energy-efficient buildings downtown, designed with windows that let in maximum sunlight, are especially hazardous, she said.

The Bird Conservancy offers designers a guide on limiting bird impacts, and San Francisco has enacted laws on bird-friendly design. A program encouraging bird safety is now being tested as part of certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. The voluntary program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council encourages architects to design energy-conscious buildings. 

Things have improved considerably since the Bird Collision Monitors’ early days, Prince said, before they had convinced buildings owners to turn off their lights at nights. Still, the deaths continue, and Prince worries that the long-term effect on bird populations could be devastating.

“We feel it’s impacting the species in general and it’s taking out some of the best members that will be the hope of that species surviving and going on,” she said.

Prince, who lives about 20 miles west of the Loop in Villa Park, usually rises at 4 twice a week during migration season. Others, like Al Legzdins, work downtown and rescue birds before heading to the office. He had collected four dead birds and one injured bird last Wednesday.

“I enjoy birds. I love birds,” Legzdins said. “This is my way of giving back to the birds. It’s sad to see the dead ones, but the live ones, I feel like I was able to do something positive to help them.”

The deceased are sent to the Field Museum for study. The survivors go to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, one of a few local conservation centers that rehabilitate injured wild animals.

On each patrol, there are plenty of false alarms. At one point, Prince sprinted across the street to a presumed bird outside a Dunkin’ Donuts. It was a paper bag.

But other times, the strikes come in bunches. By 8:30, as Prince neared the end of her route with downtown fully buzzing, she peered into an alleyway just south of the Chicago River. Two shapes were visible from the alley’s entrance, but it wasn’t clear whether they were birds.

Further review revealed sad news. Prince bagged up a fox sparrow and yellow-rumped warbler, neither of which had survived a collision with the cascading glass overhead. It’s those types of scenes that motivate Prince.

“We think all of these birds deserve a better fate,” she said. “They’re just tourists traveling through this area, and we want to give them a safer journey.”

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