For the Birds: Memory and Endangered Species

Holding a $2 hotdog and wearing a wool scarf and fedora bought from a street vendor, my 11-year-old self was perfectly equipped for April in New York City. My mom’s friend was taking me on a tour of the city, and we had just spent several hours gaping our way through the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) where I was fascinated by the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds. I was surrounded by realistic dioramas with birds in their natural habitat, including one by noted ornithologist Frank Chapman depicting large wading species threatened with extinction by hunters in Florida. I left thinking about the astounding birds in the dioramas and imagining them coming alive as in the AMNH’s Night at the Museum series. Then, when we hopped on the subway to return to SoHo. I received the full New York experience; I was taken aback to see a rat nibbling on some crumbs left in the subway station.

When I returned home to downtown Chicago, I surprisingly learned that rats were also ubiquitous. To combat this scourge, Chicago began a community cat program called “Cats at Work” that aimed to scare and control the rats. To battle the rats in our alleyway, even my family adopted several of these outdoor cats — feeding them and providing them a warm space to sleep outside. Having known about this program for years and adopting a house cat later in high school made me passionate about cats and kittens.

But last summer, interning at the 9th Street Journal, I got to write an article about the fate of community cats in Durham, N.C. Community members both in support and opposition of euthanasia weighed in. One key group opposed to saving these cats were the members of the National Audubon Society. They argued that the proposed trap-vaccinate-neuter-release program would mean that cats, which kill more than two billion birds yearly, would still roam the urban forest of Durham free to destroy local birds. Thinking back to the glorious displays birds that dazzled me at the AMNH, I wondered about what else has led to endangering bird species now in serious decline in the United States.

The spread of feral cats is just one example of how urban sprawl has led to reductions in North American bird populations. Most significant for human-related bird deaths has been habitat loss. With continuing urban and suburban sprawl, we can only expect to see greater bird loss, or the survival of only a few bird species highly adaptable to urban living such as starlings, House Sparrows, crows, and gulls.

In Chicago, for example, the construction in 2021 of a new trail around the Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park led to the displacement of the locally endangered Black-crowned Night Heron. Typically, records of endangered species are consulted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before construction on sites where wildlife may be found. However, with incomplete records that lacked any mention of herons, the museum was free to build without any recommendations or restrictions.

The Black-crowned Night Heron is not the only locally endangered bird species that can be found in Chicago. At the edge of Lincoln Park is the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, also known as the Magic Hedge, where over 300 species of birds have been counted. One species, the Great Lakes Piping Plover, of which a pair visit the Hedge each year, has just around 70 to 80 breeding pairs left of the original, historic population of 500 to 800 pairs throughout the Great Lakes basin. The Piping Plover’s decline in population was also due to development, particularly of coasts in the Great Lakes region after World War II.

While development has globalized our world and brought our own species together, deforestation and ecosystem degradation have caused man-made biodiversity loss that still continues today. Cities and urban areas were once wildlife ecosystems themselves, and they have since evolved into urban ecosystems. While these urban ecosystems may not have the same protections as national or state parks, they are worth protecting legally for many reasons, but mainly because of the ecosystem services they provide.

Urban areas are particularly susceptible to higher temperatures due to the density of impervious surfaces that absorb sunlight and retain heat, called the urban heat island effect. Some cities, like Chicago or Washington, D.C., have green roof programs to combat this, as vegetation on rooftops can deflect the sun’s radiation as well as provide moisture to offset temperature. Additionally, they attract wildlife and have proved to be beneficial break spots for migrating birds.

Investing in city parks is another way to increase urban ecosystems while populations of cities continuously grow. Not only do parks provide habitats for local wildlife and birds, they also are a sustainable architectural approach to climate related issues such as severe weather events. One report from the City Parks Alliance found that by investing in green infrastructure in parks, Philadelphia is saving $14 billion that would have otherwise gone to gray infrastructure, such as new pipes and tunnels.

There is still hope for greening, connecting and enhancing urban spaces for wildlife and for us. One of my favorite activities after I leave work at the Rachel Carson Council is to go for a walk, tuning in to the sounds of birds chirping and calling, watching them fly from benches and signs into the trees that line the streets here. Though the Dupont Circle area where I work may be all hustle-and-bustle, by the time I clock out at the end of the day, given the many urban green spaces throughout my 15-minute walk home, both in memory and in the moment, I smile as the sights and sounds of the birds burst into life.

RCC Stanback Coastal Resilience Fellow – Ana Young

Ana Young is a rising junior at Duke University majoring in Public Policy Studies, minoring in Cinematic Arts, and pursuing a Policy Journalism & Media Studies certificate. A Chicago native, Ana has been engaged in the climate crisis conversation since she first understood its extent during the 2011 Groundhog Day blizzard.