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Chicago skyline poses a risk as hundreds of millions of birds migrate south for the winter

Nell Salzman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — Bird migration is on the rise, and so are window collisions.

As temperatures slowly drop in Chicago, 300 millions to 400 million birds are crossing the continent heading south to their nesting grounds for the winter, according to Annette Prince, director and president of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, a nonprofit dedicated to the respite and protection of migratory birds through daily rescue efforts.

It’s been a busy few weeks for the organization, Prince said. Volunteers at the nonprofit pick up more than 100 birds a day. Most early mornings, she said, a team of a dozen volunteers covers an area of about a mile and a half, responding to calls from people who live and work downtown and have found birds littering the sidewalks and gutters.

They found 36 injured birds and 31 dead birds Thursday morning, she said.

“A huge variety,” Prince said. “Everything from sparrows to bigger birds like woodpeckers. A northern flicker. Cedar waxwings and warblers — a small, insect-eating bird that comes in yellows, browns and reds.”

Bird migration happens in the spring and fall, according to Michael Patrick Ward, a professor in the University of Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. Fall migration starts in the middle of August and can go through early November, Ward said.


This year’s bird migration started a bit earlier, which he said could be explained partially by the wildfires in Canada that started earlier this summer. Local weather conditions like fog can disorient the birds making their migration routes, many spanning hundreds of miles from the boreal forests in Canada to South America.

“And sometimes at night, they hit windows because they see light and then they fly toward the light,” he said. “Window collisions are something we’re concerned about.”

Chicago is in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway, a round-trip migration bird route that sees over 300 bird species each year. Birds eat all day to save up nutrients and fat to make their long trek at night. But skyscrapers can get in the way.

“It has to be such a foreign world for them because they have really not experienced urban life,” said Prince. “Some of these birds are making their first trip south from forests in Canada. We get a lot of the young birds.”


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