Bird by Bird: Grant Writing Research for Chicago Audubon Society

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker
A sapsucker is secured in a paper bag for transport to a wildlife rehabilitation center and veterinary care and evaluation. Photo courtesy of F.L.A.P.

“Are you dreaming?” my life coach asks me every time I see her, pen poised above her yellow legal pad. I shake my head no, yet that isn’t quite truthful. I can’t find words to describe the flutter of wings against my face or the vision of joining a collective flock evading a net.

[It’s March and cold, but I am sweating…]

“I’m thinking about the grant. We need to hire someone to answer the hotline. I sat in my driveway for three hours yesterday returning calls,” Annette, director of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, says. I am about to respond, to ask a few more questions about salary, independent contractors, training, when our eyes catch the flutter of brown wings against a revolving door, not unlike a moth battering its wings uncomprehendingly into porch glass.

“There’s one now! Let’s go!” and she springs forward in a blur, throwing her duffle bag, large net, and Sharpie marker onto the ground. I watch her position herself with the butterfly net, and she brings it down with a whoosh over the bird. As she reaches down to remove the bird from the net to place it in a paper bag, it escapes, flying to a railing overlooking Lower Wacker and perching there. Annette looks around wildly and then prepares to climb up the planters to see if she can capture the bird, but it is on to her and it, clumsily and drunken, over Upper Wacker and to a building across four lanes of traffic where it promptly smacks right into one of the expansive lobby windows. It puffs onto the ground and does not move.

“Shit!” says Annette and she starts running down one side of the street to cross and avoid the huge median.

“But wait, your stuff!” She’s already gone. Did she even look both ways before darting across the street? It is 6 am on a Saturday, but still. I run to pick up her bag, the big net, and the Sharpie, all of which have somehow landed many feet apart.

She’s going to need this equipment, I thought, and I ran after her as best I could, still nursing my ankle that was healing after surgery.

I forget to look both ways myself because I am caught up in this rescue hunt, and when I swing around the median, I see the bird, a tiny brown speck from my position, up from its position on the ground and repeatedly flying into the glass.

This entire task seems impossible. Car tires whine by even though it is only 6 a.m. as the owners speed down Upper Wacker at what must be fifty miles per hour, and the bird bounces back each time it collides with the window. I feel sure this is going to end poorly, with a tiny bird smashed by some angry lawyer who has to put face time in at his firm on a Saturday.

I keep running, and when I get there, the bird is sitting on a beam near the top of the window, which is about a story tall or more, covering the cavernous lobby of the high rise where I worked so many years ago. It’s way out of our reach, and I don’t know how we’re going to help this poor bird.

“We have to get him,” she says, not taking her eyes off of the bird. It looks like a Little Brown Job or LBJ, what some of us call those ubiquitous brown birds that represent a large number of species but are indistinguishable to the untrained eye except by a muted white eye stripe or a yellow throat.

I’m ready to sit there and wait for the bird to come down, but it seems stunned because it hasn’t moved from that beam. This flight across Wacker and repeated window collisions might be enough trauma to kill the bird.

There is an underground parking area blocked off with a red and white striped movable arm controlled by a uniformed security guard who watches Annette with what could only be called an amused expression. A cement wall on one side of the descending ramp has a small ledge as it butts up against the window, and as I watch in horror, Annette is moving around the ramp to hoist herself up. What have I gotten myself into? These people are crazy! Wait – I’m part of this group. We’re crazy.

She slowly brings her back up after hoisting herself on the ledge, and balances with both palms against the glass. The bird hasn’t moved. She hasn’t taken her eyes off of the bird.

“Laura Jean, move over to the side so he isn’t encouraged to fly that way, and if he does, intercept him,” I hear her voice bouncing off of the glass. Holding her net high over her head, she waves it at the bird, trying to startle him off the ledge. My stomach is so tight because I am sure this is going to end with a squished bird and an ambulance for Annette.

I glance at the security guard to see if he is going to tell her not to stand on that ledge, but he is looking elsewhere, away from our position as if he doesn’t know we are there. Annette still waves the net when suddenly the bird, as predicted, flutters off the beam and down, pushing forward with its wings using all of its might, bashing its head right into the glass. It gives up and falls down the parking ramp.

“Don’t go after it!” Annette shouts, and I stand, paralyzed and not at all considering how to pursue the LBJ. I’m between the ramp and the street and hoping that the bird doesn’t fly in my direction. This is my first outing, and I am just now being trained. I’ve never netted a bird before.

She leaps off the ledge, and I wince thinking about how far she dropped. My stomach tightens so hard that I feel a cramp in my back. Would the bird be dead? How could anything survive that kind of trauma?

Annette walks up the ramp, holding the net wrapped around a small brown bird that is very much alive. I feel myself exhale and the blood rushes to my head. I had been holding my breath for a long time.

“Oh no! Did you see where I put my stuff?” she cries out.

“I picked it up after you threw it,” and I start laughing. “I can’t believe you threw it! I can’t believe how fast you can run!” I laugh harder. She starts laughing, too.

“Welcome to training day at Chicago Bird Collision Monitors,” she says as I pull out a paper bag, clip, and Sharpie. This I at least know how to do.

“It’s a little swamp sparrow,” she says, rotating the net around.

“How do you know? My friends and I call them LBJs for Little Brown Jobbies.”

“I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. These things are almost reflexive.” She points out the distinguishing markings for me: a rusty cap, dark line through the eye, rusty brown color in the wings. It still looks like a nondescript sparrow to me, but I squinch my eyes up trying to memorize the yellow on the underside of its beak.

* * *

Later on, I text my friend Jessica who is the one who introduced me to this world to begin with. I want to tell her about Annette and our crazy run across Wacker.

Unimpressed, she texts back, “Yeah Annette is like that.” Jessica has been a monitor for over ten years and is probably crazy enough to dart across Wacker, too. I have to write a grant for these people. Wow.

* * *

After Annette decides that I meet minimum requirements, she sends me to the East Side to “do the route.” I have had some training with another monitor who took me around this labyrinthian route as I rotated the map trying to figure out our position relative to these buildings, many of which are curiously unmarked.

Today, I am by myself. I grip my net tightly and carry a bag full of brown bags for the live birds and plastic bags for the dead ones. I have the dog-eared map between my thumb and index finger as my remaining three fingers hold one of the reusable canvas grocery bags. I was told to avoid backpacks because they slow you down and make accessing supplies extremely difficult after you have caught a bird.

The East Rout takes monitors through what people refer to as “the New East Side.” To me, the East Side has always been the southeast part of Chicago where the iron and steel workers lived, a place of homes built in the 1880s, once part of a thriving community and now in disrepair as the neighborhood was repeatedly divested after the steel industry started closing its plants and moving them overseas for cheaper labor.

This neighborhood could not be farther from that reality and forms an enclave separated from downtown by Michigan Avenue and then a block of hotels: Hyatt, Swissotel, The Fairmont, and so on. For my two decades in Chicago and countless days spent downtown working or visiting the Art Institute and the like, I never made my way over here. This place didn’t even register with me. The buildings were not distinctive, not like my beloved skyline, and I went about my life without ever needing to roam among these steel and glass buildings.

The neighborhood itself is like a gated community. It’s mostly residential over there with multi-million dollar condominiums, a beautiful park, and a dedicated Mariano’s that has a live pianist playing jazz and classical music. Think of the Aon Building (formerly called the Amoco Building for old-timers), and the neighborhood is mostly a little north of that, east of Michigan Avenue. The park has a gazebo and fountains and its own dog park within the park. I’ve written about it before here.

The thing I cannot figure out, though, is where all the people who do not have homes go east of Michigan Avenue. I arrive downtown anywhere from 4 to 5:30, depending on sunrise times, and I walk from the L to my route, traversing through the Loop area before it wakes up for the day. I pass over a dozen people sleeping on the streets, especially when the weather is warmer and they are not sleeping in the L cars. There is a group sleeping under the Cultural Center overhang. There are people spread on those uncomfortable bus benches that were designed to keep people from actually curling up on them for the night. There are people huddled under construction scaffolding. Many are regulars, and I have come to recognize them with their refrigerator box blankets and piles of old clothing and possessions in plastic bags. Some people have bags of Corner Bakery food lying next to their heads – I am pretty sure those are provided by a giving soul who wants to help people by providing a bite to eat. Some people are awake at that hour and chatting quietly amongst each other.

Yet, when I cross Michigan Avenue and end up by Michigan Plaza, Swissotel, The Fairmont, the Hyatt, and then into the residential areas, there are no people sleeping in doorways, under construction scaffolding, or curled up in the beautiful park. Where has everyone gone – why and how? I don’t see anyone attempting to sleep or even walk over there. I also do not see CPD on regular patrol over there, at least at this hour. It’s like its own gated community within Chicago, a private enclave.

* * *

The first bird I find is part of a bird, a bloody wing lying on the curb by the Subway near the dog park. It’s something I might have seen a thousand times and thought nothing about. Now, however, I needed to pay close attention to this stuff. The wing bone near what would be a bird’s shoulder looks just like chicken wing bones, and the feathers are remarkably untouched. They line up in a beautiful arrangement of black and white, as if a bird were still attached and unfurling its wings. The pattern and size indicate to me this is probably a woodpecker of some sort. No LBJ with brown stripes through the eye for me to memorize.

I’m disgusted. I feel what writers always describe as “my gorge rising,” and I start to salivate, not with hunger, but with the feeling I am going to throw up. I dig around in my bag for a Ziploc and pull out the Sharpie, admonishing myself for being grossed out.

“I’m not touching that. I’ll use the bag to pick it up,” and I try this method, turning the bag inside out around my hand the way a dog owner would pick up dog waste. This isn’t bulky like dog waste, though, and the plastic is so slippery that it causes my hand to slide across the delicate wing ineffectively. I try repeatedly, and I can’t pick it up. Cursing myself for listening to Annette and not bringing gloves (“Some people do, but I find it decreases sensation and you can’t quite pick up birds effectively or know how they are positioned in your hand”), I turn the bag right side out and stretch out my right hand to pick up the wing with my bare hands. I can do this. I own pet birds, and I’ve touched them many times. This isn’t much different than that. I pick up the wing. It’s light and unsubstantial in my hand. I maneuver the wing to the bag and try to drop it in. It won’t go. The tip gets stuck, and when I turn the wing the other way, the bloody stump is stuck. I’m going to have to push the stump in.

Nauseated and feeling sheepish and completely unprofessional, I push the wing into the bag, seal it, and write the information on the outside. I place the bag in the canvas bag and try not to think about what my right hand touched.

I’m in my second season of bird rescue now, and I am officially part of that green-shirted crew of people rescuing birds, educating the public about Neotropical bird migrations and the dangers posed by the choices made in designing and constructing new skyscrapers when we know better now how to make bird-friendly designs.

More on the continuing bird saga and the grant writing process later in Part Two.

Thank you for taking the time to read and, if so inclined, leave a comment.

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