One overwhelming early morning, Flint Creek Wildlife treated 129 birds that had been gingerly collected off the sidewalks of downtown Chicago. It was fall migration season, and songbirds of all species were at it again, flying south for the winter and – many of them – along the way bumping into the city’s famously picturesque skyline.
Nature is full of jaw-dropping examples of wildlife learning to adapt to the city (you’ve heard ofbirds that sing over car horns and coyotes that comprehend traffic). But this is not one of them. Chicago, like Toronto, happens to have grown up beneath one of the four major North American migratory flyways that birds follow up and down the continent each spring and fall. And a migratory flyway is too big a thing in nature to mold itself around our metropolises.
"The first year was this emotional rollercoaster."
That means that most nights about this time of year, birds collect on the ground in Chicago, about half of them still living, half of them not. The only reason you rarely see one is because groups like Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation make a point of getting there first.
"It’s a busy, bustling city, right?" says Dawn Keller, who founded Flint Creek eight years ago. "When people are walking from the train station to work they’re not necessarily paying attention to a little 8-gram bird that’s sitting on the sidewalk." This is why volunteers go out before dawn, before the city wakes up. Plus there are other problems that come with daylight. "I remember one time coming around a corner and having something catch my peripheral vision," Keller continues. "It was this little bird flapping as this gull was trying to swallow it whole."