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The Great Blue Herons of Humboldt Park

humboldt park moon heron logo

The tall, foot-poised creature had a life, a place of its own in the manifold, fragile system that is this coastline; a place of its own in the universe. Its place, and mine, I believe, are equal and interdependent.

-Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (2003)

Thus every kind their pleasure find
The savage and the tender
Some social join and leagues combine
Some solitary wander

-Robert Burns, Song Composed in August (1775)

Towering Bird, Towering Commerce

A graceful, majestic bird wades motionless on the edge of Humboldt Park’s West Lagoon. Its head feathered in short black plumes and shoulders patterned black and chestnut, the bird tucks back its large yellow-orange bill into an elegant S-shaped curve. Typical of Great Blue Herons, the bird stands alone.

Behind the heron, the iconic former Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) looms above Humboldt Park’s treeline. The half-century-old steel frame monument, originally built for 350,000 Sears Roebuck and Company employees, stands 1,450 feet tall.

The bird and tower are separated by nearly four miles as the heron flies. Depending upon your place within the predator-prey system, the nearly five foot tall heron might catch your attention before the imposing skyscraper. But both significantly connect Humboldt Park to a larger world: the tower to the global economy, the bird to our continent’s shallow waterway ecological heritage.

former Sears Tower as seen from Humboldt Park
The former Sears Tower, viewed from Humboldt Park in February 2022.

Man-Made Habitat

It’s remarkable that such a bird would choose a home so close to downtown Chicago’s concrete jungle, within a park surrounded on all sides by busy city thoroughfares. But one Chicagoan, saxophonist Sam Burckhardt, documented not just the heron but another 147 different species of birds, including 4 other types of herons, during visits to the park in the year 2009 alone.

Humboldt Park’s lagoons, like the former Sears Tower, are man-made creations. In the 1870s, landscape architect William Le Baron Jenney first developed the park as a flat prairie landscape with two lagoons. Then in 1906, Jens Jensen took inspiration from natural rivers he saw on trips to the countryside and sculpted a natural river connecting the park’s lagoons.

And so Humboldt Park became exactly the type of wetland habitat preferred by Great Blue Herons and other shallow freshwater wading birds.

B-52 with Feathers

Dan Lory, blogger and board member of the Chicago Ornithological Society, seems to dismiss the mythology of the Great Blue Heron as a peace symbol. He instead labels it a beast of mass destruction.

“When one glides into a marsh with its gracefully ponderous flight,” he writes, “every sentient creature hunkers down and hopes that the bird will just keep on flying, and not stop to unleash its destructive fury.”

Noting that this heron feasts on wood ducks, koi, rabbits, small birds, frogs, and crayfish, he adds, “It is absolutely amazing the variety and the size of creatures that a Great Blue Heron will load into its cavernous fuselage via its long, elastic neck.”

Other sources emphasize that fish are the heron’s main diet. Regardless of the prey, the heron attacks by first straightening its elegant S-shaped neck into a dangerously long dagger-like bill.

Great Blue vs. Chance the Snapper

So what would happen if the fearsome heron faced off against Humboldt Park’s most menacing resident of recent years, the famous alligator of 2019?

A Great Blue Heron swallowing a small baby gator whole is not unheard of, but generally gators along with hawks, eagles, and raccoons count amongst a small number of Great Blue Heron predators.

Habitat destruction by human beings is generally a much bigger threat, but thankfully herons enjoy some protection, especially from hunters, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. As a result of these protections, the bird’s natural strength, and preservation of natural and man-made wetland habits, the Great Blue Heron is today the most common heron in North America.

Stalking the Stalker

How can you find these herons? Though they typically winter in the southern U.S. and South America where they can find fish year-round, they typically arrive in Illinois around February each year.

According to government officials, one might identify the Great Blue Heron by its signature call, “frahnk, frawnk, frawnk!”

Listen!

But most of the time, the bird silently waits and watches its environment. And outside of hunting hours, it nests 100 or so feet off the ground in clusters of 5 to 100 nests known as heronries.

Still, if you’re patient and observant, you might spot one motionlessly or stealthily stalking its prey along the edges of marshes, ponds, lakes, flooded fields, swamps, or rivers.

🎵Walk Liiike a Blue He-ron🎵. I spotted this guy coping with Avian Attention Deficit Disorder by the West Lagoon in May 2019.
Great Blue Heron in Humboldt Park West Lagoon.
Great Blue Heron in Humboldt Park’s West Lagoon, early August 2022.

This Month’s Heron-in-Residence

On the last weekend of July a Humboldt Park neighbor reported a Great Blue Heron flying around the Humboldt Park West Lagoon. Since then I’ve witnessed the bird several times, at all hours of the day but reliably in the morning before 9 AM.

Years ago I spotted one by the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture. But as that marshy area ran dry, a viable heron hangout vanished.

Great Blue Heron wading in Humboldt Park marsh by a tattered American flag
August 2017, flagpole rag and a Great Blue Heron in a formerly marshy park section south of Division.

A Logo for The Humboldt Park Moon

From the outset, The Humboldt Park Moon’s vision has been to share stories connecting us as neighbors, across cultures, across history, and between nature and civilization.

Jason and Margaux Teegarden-Downs of Delicious Design League have lived and worked in the heart of Humboldt Park for over two decades, developing a deep appreciation for the neighborhood, its people, and the park itself. They created the new logo for Humboldt Park Moon as a symbol of the neighborhood’s connection to the city, to the world, and to the natural habitat.

In Native American lore, the symbolism of the Great Blue Heron is complex and contradictory, representing both restlessness and patience. Humboldt Park is likewise a complex and contradictory social system and ecosystem. The Great Blue Heron has long been a part of the ecosystem. It connects our neighborhood park with other wetland settings favored by the species across North America. And as the mighty former Sears Tower looms in the background, the Great Blue Heron stands as a tall reminder that Humboldt Park is mighty, too.

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