My first find was a bloody sapsucker wing, and after my initial flinch of disgust and a little fear, I summoned my inner strength and picked up the wing, placing it in a Ziplock bag. On the side of the bag I wrote the date, time, location, side of the building, and my first initial and last name. I closed up the bag, dropped it into my backpack, and returned to patrolling. Surely the worst was over.
My second find was a dead male sapsucker, but it was not the wing’s original owner. I tried to pick up the sapsucker by turning the bag inside out, putting my hand inside, and picking up the bird, similar to the way dog owners pick up their dog’s poop. I meant no disrespect; I didn’t relish the thought of touching the dead bird. The bag was too thick or too stiff and I couldn’t get a grip on the bird. His head wobbled awkwardly because of that long neck, and consequently, the beak kept snagging on the bag. I decided to forgo my squeamishness and picked up the bird directly.
The body was stiff and cold, and it was clear that the animal was dead. The corneas had “wrinkled” a little bit, a telltale sign of a dead bird, and he also had a lot of dried blood around his beak and eyes. However, the more I handled him, the more my eyes played tricks on me, and I swore that I saw the bird breathing. My hands warmed up the body because I had held him for so long, squinting to make sure that I did not see faint movement which, of course, I did not.
My partner labelled it “Sapsucker Day,” as we found many more wings scattered throughout our route like a gruesome scavenger hunt. There were sometimes gobs or chunks of feathers with no body at all. Every bird and bird part must be carefully picked up and labelled in the service of science for particular studies.
Wood thrushes, brown creepers, ovenbirds, hermit thrushes, and swamp sparrows were part of the dead for the day. Northern flickers‘ tails poked out of the plastic Ziplock bags because we did not have a big enough bags to accommodate their bodies. The number of the dead was outpacing the number of living birds – significantly. Sometimes we would go around the block and return, only to find that two more birds had hit within minutes of our departure from that area. In contrast to my first bird of the day, these birds from recent hits were still alarmingly warm.
Every spring and fall migration season, this is how the teams spend the early morning hours, patrolling the downtown streets and sidewalks for injured or dead birds. On average, we rescue or salvage (a term for retrieving the dead ones) about 5,000 birds downtown and about 3,000 more in the greater Chicagoland area. About 60% are dead and 40% are injured.
Volunteers drive rescued birds to Willowbrook Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, sometimes making multiple trips in one day. About 70% of the injured birds are treated and released within twenty-four hours. We take the dead birds to Chicago’s Field Museum where scientists catalog each bird for study, so no bird or part of a bird goes to waste.
The partnership between the Field Museum and Chicago Bird Collision Monitors is interesting because it is a unique partnership involving evidence from over 15 years of bird collection and study. More next time about the trends revealed by the data from this project.