Chicago is the most dangerous city in the country for birds. Meet the people who want to change that.
By Ryan Schnurr
Every fall and spring, the city of Chicago is swarmed with birds. They travel up and down the Mississippi Flyway—eight million or so per year—following old man river between central Canada and points south, across the Great Lakes, the Mississippi Delta, and the Gulf of Mexico. Roughly forty percent of North America’s migrating birds take this route, in part because it’s free of major obstacles like mountain ranges. One exception is the city of Chicago, whose glass cliffs rise more than a thousand feet right in the middle of the corridor. Chicago is the most hazardous city in the country for migrating birds. Every year in the city, “tens of thousands” of flights come to a sudden and unceremonious end in a plate glass window.
If a bird survives and is lucky, it will be picked up by a member of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. Every morning during the migratory seasons—March through May and September through November—somewhere between eight and twenty monitors patrol the downtown streets looking for dead and injured birds. They carry butterfly nets, scooping up swallows and warblers and thrushes and putting them in paper sacks labeled with a sharpie: white-throated sparrow, 8:10 a.m., Daley Center, north face, and either “L” (for “Live”) or “D” (for “Dead”). They start at least half an hour before sunrise and end a few hours later, usually around 9 a.m., when many of the monitors begin their workdays in the buildings they patrol.
On a recent morning, I met the director of the monitors, Annette Prince, at Federal Plaza around 6:30 a.m. When Prince arrived, saying hello was the second thing she did. The first was to snatch a golden-crowned kinglet from the south side of the post office. Prince is short, mid-sixties, and fast. I saw her from the corner of my eye, rushing along the side of the building with her white butterfly net. She wore a neon green shirt, tan fishing vest, and a black hat that said: Chicago Bird Collision Monitors: Helping Migratory Birds Safely Navigate the Loop. When she got near the bird, she crouched and leapt net-first. Then she grabbed it, barehanded, and transferred it into a paper sack. “You chase a lot of wrappers. You chase a lot of leaves that look like birds,” she said. “The objective when you’re monitoring is just to keep moving and find these birds.”
Chicago Bird Collision Monitors was founded in 2003 by Robbie Huntsinger, a classical musician. Prince, who started monitoring in 2004, told me they collect around five thousand birds every year, roughly sixty percent of them dead—“but we only patrol a mile and a half square area, so when we say five thousand that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” The deceased birds are catalogued and taken to the Field Museum, and the injured birds are taken to a wildlife recovery center, where between seventy and eighty percent of them recover, adding up to tens of thousands of birds saved over the past eighteen years.
The monitors’ ultimate goal is to work themselves out of a job. “People think of us as the people who pick up birds,” Prince said, “but our work really is as much about preventing bird collisions in the first place. It’s not acceptable to have thousands of birds dying on these windows. And we have to do something about that. There are some problems that are so complicated, but I think we understand a lot about what will fix bird strikes. This is a fixable problem. And I like those kinds of problems.”
For years, people have been working on ideas to decrease the number of bird strikes in Chicago. The problem, basically, boils down to three things: glass, lighting, and geography. “Birds don’t like to fly over water,” Carl Giometti, a Chicago architect and board member of the Chicago Ornithological Society, told me. “So along the lakefront during migration, bird numbers are elevated compared to a spot a few miles inland. Then you put them in a city that has tall buildings, glass buildings…and birds are attracted to light, too,” he said. “It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Chicago isn’t going anywhere, so most people focus on lighting and glass. They’ve had the most success with lighting. In the late ‘90s, the Chicago Audubon Society launched the Lights Out program, which challenged tall buildings to dim or extinguish lobby, exterior, and decorative lighting between 11 p.m. and sunrise during migratory seasons, and to revise layouts that might be confusing to birds, like illuminating a tree in a forty-seventh-floor office. It’s worked pretty well. The Chicago skyline is darker than it used to be, and the city estimates the program has saved around ten thousand birds per year.
Glass can be more complicated. “The issue is that glass is invisible,” Giometti told me, and therefore so are the buildings. “We learn as humans to see mullions and other indicators to say that’s probably a piece of glass,” he added. But birds need more than that. Etchings are a popular choice, as are ceramic frits—fritting, like etching, roughs up the surface of glass, either in a pattern. For new builds, a good strategy is to simply design the building without uninterrupted sheets of glass in the first place. However it happens, the key is to make sure the bird will recognize the building as a building. “It really is just about making the invisible visible,” Giometti said.
Bird enthusiasts in the city formed Bird Friendly Chicago “to promote a safer urban environment for birds through improved lighting, landscaping and glass features of buildings.” The group’s major project is an ordinance requiring certain new buildings to incorporate bird-friendly design—limiting exterior glass; adding patterns or other features, like balconies, to break up the glass; and keeping lighting in check. It has yet to receive a vote in the Chicago City Council. (The city does currently have bird friendly standards in place for projects seeking LEED certification, and, in April 2020, the council passed a simplified ordinance that requires the Department of Planning and Development to put a greater emphasis on bird-friendly design.)
Retrofitting existing buildings is another challenge entirely. While the added cost of designing a bird-friendly building is minimal, modifying an existing building can be prohibitively expensive. And the ordinance would only affect those undergoing substantial renovations, said Claire Halpin, a Chicago architect and volunteer with the bird collision monitors. Sometimes a curtain or a sunshade will do, though these can be less effective, especially when they are on the inside of mirrored glass. Some buildings—ahem—kill two birds with one stone. For example, “If you’re replacing windows anyway, for energy efficiency, then at the same time you should do bird-friendly glass,” Halpin said.
Members of Bird Friendly Chicago, like Annette Prince, have been going around to buildings and meeting with owners and tenants, explaining how they can make their buildings less dangerous for birds. “We’ve crafted what we think are best practices,” she said. “It’s challenging because on the one hand you think it would be a win-win situation: it saves energy, it’s green, it’s sustainable. But buildings that have pride in showing off their designs, or they want to brand themselves with a logo—in our city and others—will often push back. They’ve spent money on these decorative lights for their logos and such and they want to keep these things lit.”
I asked around for the best examples of a bird-friendly retrofit, and the answer I got most often was Northwestern University, in Evanston, which added safety film and dotted glass to its Searle and Kellogg buildings and dramatically decreased its strike count. Other buildings, like Chicago’s modernist skyscrapers, are more difficult, because transparent glass is integral to their iconic look. “Modernist buildings—it’s really tricky, because they’re important, and you have to be careful with the types of solutions that would work,” Halpin told me. “What we’re trying to do now is to integrate it into the design. …It’s frustrating when things get pitted against each other. It shouldn’t be historic architecture versus bird-friendly architecture.”
Federal Plaza was a strategic choice. In the middle of the square is Alexander Calder’s fifty-three-foot abstract sculpture of a red steel flamingo, surrounded by three all-glass structures by the modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: the Kluczynski Federal Building, the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, and the Federal Post Office, Loop Station. These buildings are all massive bird magnets, especially the post office, a low, translucent box lit from the inside like a lantern, and with the same sort of elemental attractiveness. If you hang around long enough in the pre-dawn, there’s a good chance you’ll see a bird (or more) run right into it.
“The majority of birds are coming in just after sunrise,” Prince said. “They’ve flown all night, and we have such nice green spaces in the city, so they come down to take a rest. But the buildings get them all confused.” They can’t make sense of glass walls, and lights on tall buildings can mess with a bird’s direction. Birds may try to pass through a glass building (unsuccessfully) or get caught up in circles, flying around and around until they’re so tired they collapse or careen off course. The exceptions to this rule are the townie rock doves, or pigeons. “Pigeons don’t hit buildings very often,” Prince told me. “They live in the city and figure out where the buildings end. It’s these migratory birds—they have no idea how to navigate it.”
Prince and I, along with a trainee named Amelia, were monitoring a section of the south loop. We circled the area half a dozen times and collected about a hundred birds. The bird monitors can predict, with some accuracy, whether there will be a lot of birds on a given day or not. Temperature, wind speed and direction, prior days’ numbers—all can affect the density of migration. “If you have several days with no birds, and then a strong north wind, you’ll have a big day because all the birds will be backed up,” Prince explained. They can also guess the buildings where strikes will be concentrated, but not always, because “birds are free agents.”
The most commonly found birds include white-crowned sparrows, brown creepers, hermit thrushes, Nashville warblers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. They pass through in waves: first, in late August and early September, are the warblers, hummingbirds, vireos and gray-cheeked thrushes. Then come the woodpeckers—northern flicker, sapsucker. In October and November, you’ll see sparrows, kinglets, brown creepers, hermit thrushes, and woodcocks. Over the years, the monitors have also picked up bats, geese, sandbill cranes, and occasionally, near the end of the season, owls. Once, Prince made a house call to rescue a bald eagle.
That morning, we stopped off a couple of times to unload bags of birds into the back of Prince’s van, which is maroon and has a neon green sticker on the side that says BIRD RESCUE IN PROGRESS, along with the monitors’ logo, web address, and phone number for the bird collision monitor hotline: 773-988-1867. You can call that number and tell them you’ve seen a bird on the sidewalk or somewhere, and they will arrange to have someone come out and pick it up. (Once when I was trying to get a hold of Prince with a reporting question, I accidentally dialed into the hotline and she told me, politely, that unless I had a bird emergency I would need to call back later.)
Periodically, while we were walking around, Prince would get a call from the volunteer answering calls on the hotline, and we would chase down the tip. The monitors have enlisted the help of building staff—front desk workers, security guards, janitors, people who already pay attention to buildings for a living. Some of them have their own paper sacks, and they collect the birds themselves, and all the monitors have to do is stop in and pick them up. And awareness among the general population has increased over the years, too. “It used to be you’d come downtown and people would say, ‘oh, are you fetching butterflies? Or whatever,” she said. “Now they know what we’re doing, and they’ll even call us.”
Spend enough time with the bird collision monitors, and you start to look at buildings differently. “People say when they’ve done this, you develop a new way of seeing the city,” Prince told me. “And it’s true. When I watch the news at night, there’ll be a reporter, and he’s standing in front of the Kluczynski [Federal] Building blabbering on about some political thing, and I’m looking at the ground behind him to see if there are any birds back there.”
Prince is a master of this kind of looking. “Here’s an example of a building that’s all mirrored glass,” she would say, pointing at a particularly reflective structure. “So it’s hard to tell—what’s street? What’s building? It’s like a funhouse mirror.” Or, “See this ventilation grate on the sidewalk? It’s too big. A bird can fall down through it, and then if it comes to, it can’t fly back out.” Or, “The post office used to have big blinds in the morning. At least when the blinds were down, they tamped down some of the light. They took those down last year, and the number of collisions has gone up since then.”
Claire Halpin worked in architecture and around bird-friendly design for more than a decade before joining the monitors. “There’s this interesting thing you hope to learn from doing the monitoring, as an architect,” Halpin said. “You can get a sense of what the real hazards are first-hand.” Bird-friendly design—like all good design, from architecture to social policy—begins with paying attention, noticing how a sparrow moves around a corner, or the way light reflects off of a building. It requires looking at the city through a different lens and asking, how can we make this work better for everyone?
Prince, Amelia, and I circled back by the post office for the fifth or sixth time and called it a day. By 9 or 10 a.m., most of the morning’s birds have been rescued, swept up, or eaten by predators. The next day, before sunrise, the monitors would be back, combing the streets for dead and injured birds. In the meantime, Prince was headed to the wildlife recovery center with a van full of patients.
“Remember,” she shouted across the plaza as I walked away. “Call me if you see any birds!” ■
Ryan Schnurr is editor of Belt Magazine.
Cover image of Annette Prince at the Federal Post Office by Ryan Schnurr.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.