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Humboldt Park Fosters a New Generation of Bird Watchers

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, Pilsen resident Em Tarrant picked up a new hobby.

 “Everyone’s got one,” she says. “I didn’t do crochet or breadmaking.”

She describes those activities and her hobby of choice, bird-watching, as “geriatric.” But bird-watching, she says, connects to her childhood interests.

“I was a Pokémon kid growing up,” she says. “And this just feels like real-life Pokémon,” she adds, attributing the comparison to a friend.

On a partly cloudy day in mid-May, Tarrant visited Humboldt Park to join a bird walk led by David Rupp, who operates the bird tour service IndiGo Birding with his wife Beth.

“It’s good for everybody’s mental health to get out and immerse themselves in nature one way or another,” says Rupp, who lives within walking distance of the park.

Birds are “quite entertaining,” he says, noting that their publicly visible endeavors to raise their young and look for food make them relatable. But it’s their ”singing ability and their ability to fly that makes it pretty cool.”

Alice Brandon, a botanist by training who also lives near Humboldt Park, only really discovered birding during the pandemic. She’s drawn to birding in part for its mental health benefits.

“I find birding actually very meditative and very calming,” she says. Noting that she was under a lot of stress during the COVID-19 lockdown, she found bird-watching to be an effective way to forget her worries and negative thoughts.

“I can start looking at these things and my stress melts away,” she says.

Female wood duck with two ducklings swimming in Humboldt Park lagoon
Wood duck mother and ducklings in Humboldt Park. Photo: Juneer Kibria.
Common Grackle perched on a branch by Humboldt Park's Prairie River
Common Grackle by Humboldt Park’s Prairie River. Photo: Rob Reid.

A Zoo Without Bars

“It feels very natural, for being smack dab in the middle of a residential area,” Em Tarrant said of Humboldt Park.

With downtown highrises posing collision risks for birds, parks like Humboldt serve as a safe haven. This is especially true for migrating birds which “get funneled into the little chunks of habitat that are scattered among the urban landscape,” according to Rupp. Even for birds just passing through, the park’s natural landscape serves as a “fueling station…a buffet for birds,” he says. 

Jeff Witzig, a Humboldt Park resident who shares bird observations on Instagram under the moniker Humboldt Park Bird Walks, notes that the park’s landscape is carefully curated to support birds. It’s “intentionally diverse, concentrating the birding there, like a zoo,” he says.

Since at least the Daley administration, the city has attributed the park’s appeal for birds to a combination of open water, marsh, shrubs, and wildflowers. The Chicago Bird Alliance, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, notes the value of specific habitats within Humboldt, including lagoons which attract wood ducks and herons, and shrub cover which attracts songbirds and kingfishers. Even the disused beach near the fieldhouse attracts shorebirds including killdeer, according to the organization’s website.

The park, originally designed by architect William LeBaron Jenney, followed a pattern of large parks developed in the 1870s as a means to provide recreational space and spur real estate development. Even at that time, Americans recognized the psychological benefits of parks. Chicago Tribune archives show bird walks in Humboldt Park dating back to at least the late 1940s.
In more recent decades, the Chicago Park District has managed efforts to remove invasive plant species and replace them with native plants. Native shrubs provide a nesting habitat for dozens of bird species, according to the Bird Conservation Network.

Killdeer in flight near Humboldt Park Beach. Photo: Rob Reid.

Learning Birds, One Bird at a Time

In the first half of May alone, Humboldt Park birders collectively identified over a hundred birds in Humboldt Park. For individual birders, learning to identify new birds is an ongoing process. Alice Brandon, who’s been birding in Humboldt Park for three years, is only now learning to distinguish different types of sparrows.

“Now I feel confident I know the songs of…at least four or five of the sparrows,” she says. And this year, she’s learning to identify warblers.

One of the most common, and best-known, birds in Chicago is the red-winged blackbird. Preferring to be near bodies of water, including Humboldt Park’s lagoons, they sometimes get aggressive when people come close to their nests. Blackbirds, along with robins, are harbingers of spring, later joined by migratory songbirds in April and May.

Jeff Witzig is also still learning.

“As soon as I see something I like for the first time, I start seeing them much more often,” he says. “I didn’t used to see Red-headed Woodpeckers and now I catch them more often.”

The red-headed woodpecker is particularly significant. Previously in decline, they’ve notably been returning to the Chicago area in recent years- a pattern which experts attribute to savanna restoration efforts.

Living near the park accelerated Witzig’s interest in birds.

“It wasn’t until we moved to Humboldt Park (neighborhood) and I saw my first Rose-Breasted Grosbeak at my backyard feeder that I decided to buy binoculars and go to the park proper,” Witzig says. “There were all these yellow birds flying around the park. I couldn’t believe these birds were always here in the park and I had missed them. That’s when I learned about spring migration and realized that most of those birds were just passing through. I had been caught in a special moment,“ he says.

Even the experts like David Rupp continue to learn.

“Just like anything, the more you know, the more you find out that you don’t know,” he says.

Rupp sees birding as a gateway to curiosity about the natural world and our connection to local ecosystems.

”And then as you get connected, the more you learn, the more you appreciate, then you start doing something about it,” he says.

Red-winged blackbird in Humboldt Park. Photo: Juneer Kibria.
colorful male wood duck on the lawn by No Man's Land south of Division Street
Wood duck in “No Man’s Land” south of Division Street. Photo: Rob Reid.

Jumping on the Bird Bandwagon

While birding can be a solitary activity, several Chicago organizations host bird walks at all levels. The Chicago Ornithological Society leads free bird walks throughout the city, including events led by David Rupp in Humboldt Park. Chicago’s chapter of the Audubon society hosts weekly walks in Jackson Park and additional events in other parts of the city. For an entrance fee, the Chicago Botanic Garden also hosts walks on site.

For more ambitious birders, the Audubon Society promotes opportunities to contribute as community scientists by monitoring and collecting data on birds. Researchers use such data to learn how birds adapt to climate change, and inform conservation efforts. Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology provides free mobile apps including Merlin, a tool for identifying birds by sound or photo, and eBird, a tool for tracking bird counts and contributing to community science.

Cornell also provides guidance on making your home and yard more hospitable to birds. Suggested practices include adding native plants and installing screens to make windows less reflective. During the Daley administration, the City of Chicago published its own bird agenda, which offered similar advice for homeowners while touting larger-scale actions of the Audubon Society and the Ornithological Society.

Asked about the most important thing Chicagoans should know about birds, Dave Rupp provided a clear answer.

“Besides, don’t feed the ducks?” he says. “The native habitat that is there is important for migrating birds.” Noting the region’s wealth of parks and forest preserves, he suggests not taking them for granted.

“I think people should appreciate that and lobby for those natural areas within the city.”

Cooper’s Hawk atop a tree near The Meadow in Humboldt Park.
Cooper’s Hawk atop a tree near The Meadow in Humboldt Park. Photo: Juneer Kibria.

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