Volunteer group helps birds navigate the Loop

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • October 14, 2008 @ 8:50 AM

It’s 7 a.m. and Linda Tartof, armed with a green net, sneaks up on a white-throated sparrow that just glanced off a building in Federal Plaza.

She gently scoots the stunned bird into a brown paper bag. From there, the bird will travel to Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn for rehabilitation.

“It’s crucial to get to the birds who are still alive and hopping about as quickly as possible,” says Tartof, a volunteer with the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors.

Fall is migration season. Tartof and other volunteers say many of the millions of songbirds shuttling over the Chicago Loop this October will not make their nesting grounds.

“Having survived exhaustion, hunger and predators, these birds may journey thousands of miles, only to meet a new hazard in the lights and glass walls of city skyscrapers,” says CBCM director Annette Prince.

CBCM Director Annette Prince displays the yellow lining on the wings of a still warm Northern Flicker that crashed into a downtown building / By Jennifer Slosar

That’s why the non-profit volunteer group makes it their mission to rescue thousands of migrating birds drawn into downtown by lighting displays atop tall skyscrapers. Many of the birds become confused and circle buildings until disoriented. Others try to enter glass-walled lobbies that feature trees and fountains.

Dazed birds left on the sidewalk face many perils, says Tartof, a Hyde Park resident who directs the student counseling clinic at the University of Chicago.

Birds can be squashed by pedestrians, powerwashed  away, swept into revolving doors or eaten by the gulls and crows that swoop down into the city at sunrise.

On Tartof's recent expedition, she found a dead 10-inch Northern Flicker woodpecker. He’d crashed into the windows of the Dirksen building.

Such “salvage” birds are tucked into Ziploc bags, marked with the time and place of their demise. Then they’re sent to the Field Museum, for use in research or display.

The over 120 species of birds that the group has encountered throughout the years include thrushes, hummingbirds, orioles, winter wrens, various varieties of woodpeckers and kinglets, which can be as small as one inch in length.

The birds hail from the northern U.S., Canada, and Alaska and are  headed south to Mexico, South and Central America and the West Indies, says Prince.
Using the stars to navigate, the birds fly at night when it’s cooler. In daytime they land to rest and feed.

“Many of these birds are already in danger of losing their habitat,” says Prince.  They can ill afford these population losses through hitting buildings.”

During spring and fall, volunteers typically rise early and get downtown by 5 am.

The group numbers some 80 volunteers, including office workers and science teachers.

Their work is supported by a network of doormen, security staff and building managers.

“We rely on them greatly to be our eyes and ears,” says Prince. “Many have our hotline number, and sometimes they’ll just move a bird into a planter, out of harm’s way.

At the wildlife center in Willowbrook, specialist Sandy Woltman begins by placing birds in a flight cage to test their mobility

 “A lot of these birds are simply stunned, and they just need a quiet place to recuperate," says Woltman. “But we also see a lot of head trauma and brain swelling.”

Injuries may require her to apply eye drops, wrap wings or splint tiny legs.

Woltman estimates that over 75 percent of her feathered patients make a full recovery and are released into nearby woods or marshy areas.

In 2004 the group collaborated with Audubon Chicago Region and the city on the Lights Out Program, which encourages buildings over 40 stories to dim their lights between 11 p.m. and sunset in the fall and spring.

Results have been dramatic. The total for what Prince terms a busy season is now at over 1,000 rescues and 1,400 salvages.

Before the program, monitors could find 100 to 1,000 dead and injured birds after a single night of migration.

The program has garnered full participation from most downtown skyscrapers, says Prince.

Looking about the intersection of Dearborn and Madison streets, Prince notes a plethora of  potential building modifications that could make the cityscape more bird-friendly.

Ensuring that sidewalk grates have narrow slats, so birds can’t fall though them, replacing transparent or mirrored glass with frosted glass, or covering it with plastic film and dimming lobby lights are adjustments that Prince says building owners can make.

The group educates architects about how to incorporate bird-friendly features into buildings. And they’re collaborating with other groups nationwide to develop bird safety features they hope will become part of the LEED certification process.

“Ultimately, we want to raise awareness that will lead to these kinds of permanent modifications,” says Prince.  “Then we won’t have to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning every day."


Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News