By Andy Seifert
“Do you wanna go peacefully, or do you want the handcuffs?” the advancing man slyly inquires to the adversary he’s been chasing around for almost an hour now, approaching the culprit with a Clint Eastwood-like swagger.
The culprit—a white-throated sparrow—looks ahead, unflinchingly, even as the situation worsens. A month ago, he was likely basking in the warmth near the Gulf Coast; now, he’s holed up in a Chicago convenience store, perched atop the ledge over the cashier’s counter, and watching two nets slowly progress to his seemingly inescapable corner. His end is coming, inch by inch, unless he can figure something out, fast. He should have never left Texas.
And that’s when the sparrow takes action, darting off toward the back of the store like a Steve Nash drive to the hoop, narrowly skirting between the ceiling and the fruitless reaches of the nets, and barely missing the Slim Jims and Lays potato chips on the way to the magazine rack.
“It really rapidly becomes like the ‘Night at the Opera’ in situations like this,” says the Eastwood character—John Gronkowski’s his real name. While the bird may have succeeded in creating a Marx Brothers-worthy slapstick comedy in a convenience store at 7am, it’s not doing itself any favors. Gronkowski isn’t there to hurt him. He’s there to save him.
Gronkowski is one of a select group of bird lovers who have volunteered to patrol Chicago’s Loop during the early morning, before even the financial district has its coffee. Their mission: help any bird in trouble, most notably the ones that migrate in the spring and fall through downtown Chicago and whose navigation systems sometimes send them bearing down, head-first, into the glass and steel walls of a skyscraper or a high-rise, an accident that leaves the bird injured and often dead.
Six years ago, the morning sweepers would have simply swept these wounded birds into the trash. Now, not just one, but two independent, volunteer not-for-profits—the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (CBCM) and volunteers from the Flint Creek Rehabilitation Center—take to the streets at dawn, scouring the streets to find the injured creatures, send them to a rehab center, and save as many birds as possible.
CBCM volunteer Annette Prince, 49, sometimes starts her search underneath the largest bird in the city, Alexander Calder’s vermilion “Flamingo” statue in Federal Plaza, but she insists this is merely a coincidence. She woke up this morning at 4am, dressed herself in a CBCM shirt and nametag, and arrived at Federal Plaza at 5:15am carrying a bag with a net, paper bags, clips, a flashlight and hand sanitizers. An older woman named Joan Bruchman accompanies her, a pair of binoculars dangling under her neck, and the two set out on foot to search out every nook and cranny the Loop throws at them. First step: distinguishing birds from doorstops.
“We’re spotting a lot of doorstops, things that look like they might be birds,” Prince says after scoping out a doorstop that looked like a bird from twenty feet away. “Leaves, just moving around the ground. One of the challenges is just figuring out and finding the birds.”
The CBCM started in spring of 2003 after bird watchers were particularly horrified from the fallout of bird collisions in fall of 2002, and today the group includes a network of ninety people that patrol seven days a week, four to twelve patrollers a day, from mid-March to mid-June (for spring migration) and mid-August to early November (for fall migration), collecting roughly 4,000 birds a year, 2,400 of which are found dead. But the number that disturbs Prince is one billion, the estimated number of birds killed in North America from collisions in one year alone according to a researcher at Muhlenberg College.
“When we were first starting, we were really stunned to hear the causalities,” Bruchman says. “As the ‘Lights Out’ program in Toronto started, it just collected the casualties to prove to people that—yes, birds are dying.”
The “Lights Out” program that Bruchman refers to is the effort to decrease the light during migration season from skyscrapers in major cities, which—for unknown reasons—attracts the birds to its source. Ever wonder why the Chicago skyline goes dim during the spring and fall seasons? It’s partly the doings of these bird monitors, who helped make Chicago one hundred percent compliant in 2004. And since we’re not finding any birds at the moment (maybe “Lights Out” did its job?), Prince has the time to talk about what’s making the poor birds fly into the deadly light.
“They don’t completely understand that… it’s like they’re attracted the way an insect’s attracted to a porch light,” she says, making the skyscrapers above momentarily seem like giant bug zappers. “They’ll just circle it until they’re exhausted. It’s not even fully understood how birds navigate.”
“As a memorial to the Twin Towers going down in New York City, a month after 9/11, they put up two beams of light to represent the two towers in the middle of October, which is peak migration time in New York City. Thousands of birds pulled into those lights and circled until they dropped to the ground. They had a huge number of birds killed just by the light attraction from those two beams of light.”
Lea Miller, a building manager for a thirty-story high-rise in the East Loop, contacted the bird monitors three years ago when she realized her building was a magnet during migration season. The “Lights Out” program was easy—“just flipping a light switch”—but she wanted to know if there were other options, alternative solutions to keep birds from being fooled by the reflections on the building’s glass.
“It started out with simple decals, to break up the reflections,” Miller says. “Then the next season we actually had a local artist come and paint some our windows on our east side where most of the birds hit… We purchased some CollidEscape, which is like vinyl film you put on your exterior windows.”
“It’s a significant enough issue that we do want to help out. I got involved because I don’t want to see birds hitting my building,” she says.
As for this morning, there’s little to nothing as far as collisions go (Prince thinks the north winds kept birds from migrating over the night), with the exception of one white-throated sparrow picked up before they even arrived at Federal Plaza. Another volunteer, Dorothy, pulls up in a red Honda Accord with a “Bird Rescues in Progress” sign in the back, where inside the dazed sparrow lays inside a brown paper bag. Prince and Bruchman pile into the car, shut the doors and take a peek inside to see how the pudgy fellow is doing. Prince pulls him out, holding firmly so as not to let him fly with havoc around the tight confines of a Honda Accord stuffed with passengers, and he looks around confusedly, blinking his black eyes a few times as if he was thinking, “What the hell am I doing in a car?”
“You see how he’s blinking his eyes a little bit?” Prince says. “He looks like he’s still feeling a little puny. See how he’s drifting out, like his head hurts.”
Our puny bird friend is also bit of a loner. It seems like he’s the only bird to have needed assistance this morning (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Prince says, “If they want to fly overhead and avoid the city, that’s fine with us.”) though surely there are more out there, and Prince knows who to ask—the friendly neighborhood workers. Guys like Frank, the hotel security guard, who Prince has become acquainted with while patrolling. She approaches him with an enormous friendly smile, “Seen any birds today?”
Frank looks extremely tired, and rubs his face to think. “Uh, flying around in the sky.”
“Just flying around, that’s where we want ‘em!” Prince says.
“I’ll say one thing,” Frank says. “They’re not like people—there’s no racism with the birds. They’re just trying to get along.”
Prince seems elated every time someone cooperates, and there’s an added gusto in her speech when she talks about the workers out in the streets who have started keeping an eye on bird collisions because of the group’s efforts, how more and more people are coming around to bird-collision awareness, just as she came around in February of 2004 when a presentation at the Audubon Society inspired her to answer the call for volunteers to CBCM. It’s almost bird evangelism, in a way.
“There’s a gentlemen who’s a security guard at a building and he spent so much time calling us when he found birds that he comes on his days off to help us spot birds,” she says, analogous to the way a Christian might say, “He spent so much time coming to church activities that he decided to be baptized himself!”
“Are you sure he’s dead?” Pauline Saliga asks, as the small, brown and white-feathered bird with a touch of yellow on its head appears to move, ever so slightly.
“Yeah, he’s dead,” says Nadia Gronkowski, her teenage daughter, who’s holding the lifeless bird that she and her schoolmate Sophie Braziunas just came across. “I don’t feel his heartbeat.”
Another day, another round of migratory birds. Except Saliga and her two teenage companions belong to a different crew, a team of about sixty volunteers from the Flint Creek Rehabilitation Center in Barrington and Northerly Island who cover a similar area as the CBCM, from 31st Street up to Grand Avenue, and Clinton Street east to the lake, coming across almost 2,000 birds, of which about half are already dead. Where the CBCM sends their injured out to their partner wildlife hospital in Willowbrook, the Flint Creek folk keep their injured birds within the city, sending them to the wildlife hospital on Northerly Island.
Saliga and company patrol the Loop starting at 6am, and despite some precipitation in the area that may have shooed the birds from the city during the night, the teenagers—both seriously interested in careers in ecology—are having no problems finding birds, using their nets to catch the animals, then gently picking them up and dropping them into one of the paper bags that each patroller carries around.
“We don’t do triage (the process of prioritizing and stabilizing victims) in the field, that’s just for the hospital,” Saliga says. “It wouldn’t be a good idea to be walking around with syringes in downtown Chicago. Unless the city wants to give us an ambulance or something, to put them in and work with them in.”
For years, Saliga was “heartbroken” to watch a continuous stream of birds slam into buildings downtown, which occasionally prompted her to take the birds home, cuddled up inside a Dunkin Donuts bag. As the director of the Society of Architectural Historians, Saliga thinks perhaps her professional background has something to do with the mercy she feels.
“It’s funny that both these girls have parents in architecture,” she says. “I think we feel some responsibility. That which we built is now causing trouble for wildlife. In some little way we can try to help.”
Suddenly, the teenagers spot something: there’s a bird in the lobby of 55 West Monroe! A white-throated sparrow (one assumes it’s not the same white-throated sparrow as in the CBCM car, but you never know) has mistakenly trotted through the revolving doors and is now fluttering about the lobby like it owns the place.
The bird-rescue squadron enters the lobby and, upon identifying the humans inside as predators, the sparrow tries to escape to the trees enticing him from the outside. Unfortunately, a pretty thick sheet of glass, imperceptible to the bird, stands in its way.
Thump. Thump. Thump. The bird flings itself into the invisible force field three or four times, then retreats to a higher ledge for further analysis of the situation. It’s too frisky and cunning to catch for the patrollers, so an alternative plan is hatched: call Saliga’s husband, John Gronkowski.
Why do we need John? “He’s got a bigger net,” Saliga says in such a way that it conjures up the classic “Jaws” line, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.” That blasted bird could tear this whole lobby apart! After a few phone calls for backup, John arrives. And he’s ready to take action.
“Can we pin him in? Maybe form a circle around him,” he suggests, slowly leading the patrollers toward the animal before it realizes what they’re trying to pull and high-tailing it up to the highest ledges of the lobby, far out of reach of John’s net. “He’ll come down,” John says matter-of-factly.
He’s right. The sparrow does eventually come down, but it doesn’t really help matters, it just leads the group into the lobby’s convenience store, where the aforementioned “Night at the Opera” showdown takes place behind the cashier’s table, and where a somewhat frustrated John calmly sighs to his avian friend/foe, “Come on, buddy. Be a sport here, OK?”
As the lobby’s usual occupiers grin at the lighthearted game of cat-and-mouse that seems to never end (note: it eventually does, hours later, when a security guard manages to catch it and set it free), Saliga, ready to leave for work at any minute, comes to the conclusion, “I’ll have to tell Dawn. She’d know what to do.”
It’s maddening enough to drive around downtown as it is, but Dawn Keller is speeding down Clark Street in an SUV that currently holds the following: the seven birds the Flint Creek rescuers found, incubators full of baby robins, baby house finches, baby cardinals and, for good measure, a box with an increasingly hungry baby coyote. Once in a while she has to pull over and feed these orphaned birds with the formula that’s sitting in the cup holder; and none of this is all that peculiar to Keller, because this is her job, and this is her life, and those are one and the same.
Once picked up, the birds—dead or alive—are transported to a Chicago-area wildlife rehabilitation center, and it’s bird experts like Keller, 43, who’s affiliated with the Flint Creek hospitals in Barrington and Northerly Island, who attempt to save the birds’ lives. Today, like most days from March to November, she has extra passengers, extra obligations to take care of, but the injured birds take priority.
Upon arrival at Northerly, Keller and her assistant waste no time; Keller peeks quickly into each paper bag, assesses the criticality of each patient, and administer fluids and an anti-inflammatory drug to prevent brain swelling. There’s very little talking. The room is virtually silent.
“How much do you want this?” the assistant whispers, referring to some critical measurement for the syringe.
“Point oh-nine,” Keller replies, very softly. The terminology and teamwork is slightly reminiscent of an “ER” scene, just with more whispering, no pulse-rattling music and tinier patients.
After the four surviving birds are treated, Keller identifies the remaining three dead birds and places each one of them in storage bags in the refrigerator amongst the other deceased birds. (All of the dead birds—as well as the ones from the CBCM—go to the Field Museum for study).
The room comes alive once the treatment is over with more animals being brought in, and the squeaking and squawking of the creatures begin to crescendo. The baby orphan cardinals (who have very few signs of actually being birds to a casual observer except for their proportionally massive beaks) need to be fed, and so does the four or five day old “pinky” squirrel, who looks like nothing more than a piece of red flesh, no bigger than two of Keller’s fingers.
Two owls are brought in to silently perch amongst their wildlife contemporaries. An Eastern Screech Owl named Katori, maybe six inches tall with rusty-looking plumage and big light-green eyes, blinks a lot, takes a deep breath when she feels like it, and mostly looks like she’s on the verge of falling asleep. Katori deserves her own YouTube channel, her cuteness factor is that off-the-charts. The other is a tough-looking, two-feet tall Great Horned Owl with orange wings and black tips called Justice, so named because he was found injured at the Kane County Courthouse with a broken wing. Justice rustles around majestically, his eyes dilate and grow large, he moves one talon up, then down, and does the same with the other talon, then lifts the tail ever so slightly towards the ceiling, and proceeds to defecate on the table.
Baby birds and intimidating owls and squirrels that are too young to open their eyes—this is Keller’s world now. But before all this, just a few years ago, she was fully entrenched in the corporate sector as the vice president of Solo Cup Company. That’s when, on the way back from work one night, she came across an opossum injured on the side of the road, and upon taking the bleeding animal back to her house, discovered there were few, if any, wildlife rehabilitation centers available. So five years ago, she quit the corporate world and founded Flint Creek, and now…
“I’m exhausted,” she says, and then laughs for some reason. “Some days are worse then others. Like this morning I thought, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I typically sleep three to four hours a day, and it’s not even continuous hours. It’s usually not one fell swoop.”
“I do this twenty hours a day…for free.”
At twenty hours a day and no salary, the immediate question is “Why?” Why in the world would you do that? For that matter, why wake up at 4am to salvage birds? Why chase them around convenience stores? Why do any of this when you don’t see a penny, and don’t even receive a “thank you” from the creature you’re saving?
“Trust me, there’s no sane reason to do this,” Keller says of her side of the job. “You have to be passionate and you have to care about the animals. It’s too hard. It’s too much hard work.”
She continues, “This is absolutely fulfilling work. If you came and saw some of these animals that come to you in critical condition, and you got to see the full cycle, and you saw the release, you’d know why we do it.
“It’s a need. There’s nobody else doing it. Who’s gonna do it? Where are those animals going to go if we’re not doing it?”