I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 32 of 100. I know this is technically a Why-To essay, but the why is very important in this case.
It is possible that you don’t know this, but Chicago is a mecca for seeing birds. I think that is what should be on the poster for Chicago: the amazing bird population; the migratory bird vacation destination that is Montrose Park Conservatory (wonderfully nick-named “The Magic Hedge”); or one of the handful of whip-smart ornithologists who work at the Field Museum and are basically solving the end of the world one feather at a time. Chicago has a lot of things going for it, but one of the greatest is that there is no part of the city — north, south, east, or west — where there isn’t a next-level bird-watching place.
And I didn’t mean to make this entire blog post about the plovers, but when I started writing about them, I couldn’t stop. It was going to be something much less specific, but the plovers are everything right now. And so this post will cover plovers, and that’s it. (BY THE WAY: Sign this petition for the Chicago plovers. Do it because I am telling you to do it right now, or wait until I have convinced you to sign it by the end of this essay. Either way: sign it.)
Maybe you’re like, “What plovers? What is a plover? Why do I care about these plovers?” OK, yes, calm down. Right now, there is a breeding pair of piping plovers on Montrose Beach. This is a big deal. There are only 70 breeding pairs of Great Lakes piping plovers left. Piping plovers are cuter than you are imagining them to be: they’re kind of the definition of what the term “charismatic megafauna” was coined to describe.
The plovers, Monty and Rose, have had a rough year because it’s been so rainy. (If you don’t live here, I need you to fully grasp this: it has been sooooooooooooooooooooooooo rainy. I’m from Portland and I’m damp inside, and still it was too much.) Their first clutch of eggs would have drowned in an overnight storm, so volunteers took them away and brought them to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where the chicks might potentially hatch safely. It was an act of conservation and greater-good-style kindness, but try telling a piping plover that.
When you, a human, (or you, a coyote; or you, a raccoon) get near the nest of many species of shorebird, the parents-to-be pretend to have broken wings to protect their babies. (It’s actually ingenious; if you’re wanting some fast food and you’re a predator, a whole adult-sized bird is going to be a lot more seductive than some puny eggs. And while normal adult-sized birds can fly away, broken-winged birds can’t. Shorebirds are smart.) For those of us who project human emotions onto shorebirds (guilty), it’s heartbreaking to think about Monty and Rose fruitlessly breaking their own wings to save their eggs, over and over again.
But they got over it pretty fast and they now have a new clutch of eggs. This is exciting for birders. Think about how fans of the Avengers felt about the idea of going to Endgame on opening night. That is how the birders feel about these new eggs. No shade here: I count myself among them.
Except that there’s an EDM festival (of all the festivals for there to be…) that’s scheduled to be on the beach, right near where Rose and Monty are nesting. The birders are like, “Please kindly move your throbbing bass noises to some other part of this gigantic city with its quadrillion parks.” The guy in charge of the fest is like, “But that’s slightly inconvenient for me, and look at my deep, deep pockets, so I win.” These are not direct quotes.
A few years ago, the birders won a fight against the city to block the construction of a proposed water park on Montrose Beach. The water park looked fun, but there are a lot of water parks in the world. There is only one Magic Hedge.
The Magic Hedge was on my mind last weekend when I read this editorial in The New York Times about the National Radio Quiet Zone. Pagan Kennedy, the writer, visits the zone — which exists, at least on the surface, to help super-powered telescopes at the Green Bank conservatory “hear” what is going on in space very far away — to get a personal sense of what that such a place might be like. Kennedy really likes it. As I read her lovely prose, I felt all kinds of romantic things for this place in West Virginia.
Kennedy writes with beautiful gratitude for this singular place that is completely disconnected from the internet and cell service. But she warns that, unlike the International Dark Sky Spaces, which are few and far between but federally protected from artificial light, it will be harder to preserve radio silence:
We have no similar protections for disconnection, privacy and offline communities. And if no one advocates for these intangibles, the last quiet places will soon be gone.
In 2012, the National Science Foundation considered a proposal to shut down the Green Bank observatory — and ended up slashing its support by about 40 percent. Nowadays, the observatory depends on private foundations and universities to make up the shortfall.
If the observatory were to disappear, then so too, presumably, would the National Radio Quiet Zone.
I’m pushing it a little, but The Magic Hedge is sort of like this. I grew up in Oregon, where birds are basically sewn into the cultural zeitgeist, but The Magic Hedge has a leg up. It’s the density of people trying actively to protect it that makes it so special. Volunteers show up on even the rainiest weekends to plant prairie grass or shift the walking trails, preserving the sprawl of natural habitat. Good Samaritans stand outside in negative digit degree temperatures to discourage unknowing passers by from getting too close to tired snowy owls. The Magic Hedge is small in comparison to, say, The Cascades Mountain Range, but its advocates are fierce and manifold and they work together in greater numbers and with even more fervor.
I like that there are so many people who feel like this is a place worth saving. Someone quoted in a Sun-Times editorial about the plovers called The Magic Hedge “sacred.”
Like, you can’t take your dog into The Magic Hedge, and if you try to break the rule, gentle-but-firm bird-watchers will ask you to walk a few blocks north to the dog park. One time, some people brought their cat to The Magic Hedge, and this sparked an uproar on the Chicago Ornithological Society’s Facebook page. Someone took pictures of the people with the cat. Even after bird-watchers asked them to leave, the cat people were stalwart. Plans were made to get the people punished. I am not assertive enough to scold anyone about their cat, but I appreciate the people who were.
I mean, I love my cats. I really do. But they are not allowed to go outside, and that’s entirely due to the efforts of the bird people posting in forums about how more than 30 species of bird have been made extinct by house cats worldwide (cats kill billions of birds every year) — and counting. This argument is convincing. Birds are magical.
If you don’t know why birds are magical, that’s ok. You can know that they are vital to our ecosystem. You can know that they can perform physical feats that human scientists actually cannot understand. You can hear them when you wake up and take a moment to think about how that loud robin is preferable to a loud jackhammer or a loud garbage truck, and you can know that birds are kind of just better than humans in most ways.
Today, on my morning walk, I thought about how proud I was that I could identify all the bird songs I heard. They’re not fancy ones, don’t get your hopes up — but I’m not really a fancy birds person. I like them all (pigeons are actually my favorite), and I’m glad they have figured out how to live alongside us. We, species-wise, are deeply shitty neighbors.
To learn to identify a bird song, you can listen to tapes and watch videos all day long, but that has never worked for me. (And yes, I’ve tried. I’ve really, really tried.) The best way is to hear the sound and follow it. You have to stop your WHOLE DAY and follow the sound. And usually, it is arduous to find the bird that is making the sound, because birds can go in trees, and trees are great places to hide. But once you find it, you think, “Oh! That’s a cardinal! OK!” And then tomorrow you’ll hear it again and you’ll know. Humans like to know.
There was another article in The New Yorker — a short one, a Talk of the Town — that made fun of people protesting a proposed ordinance to ban bird-feeding in New York’s city parks. The article didn’t out-and-out make fun of the people; the people (like certain PETA activists in the world) were caricatures of themselves. Here’s a quote:
“There have been activists recently who’ve been arrested for giving out water to people trying to cross the border,” she said, “and that’s what this feels like.” Fighting tears, she went on, “They need us just as much as we need them. Don’t turn the parks into a Trump city!”
Here’s another one:
“Pigeons helped us out immensely in World War Two,” he said, adding that, during the war, “there were people that starved other people.” The new rule, he insisted, “is going to starve pigeons.”
It’s not safe for a lot of birds to be fed human food; they can easily get poisoned and die. The only argument against the ban that I found remotely convincing was the guy who liked feeding the birds because it was “therapeutic” to him. There are a lot of other things we can and should do to save the birds.
For example, we should cancel any and all EDM festivals that are going to disrupt endangered mating pairs of Great Lakes Piping Plovers on public beaches. That would be one thing.
I bring up the angry bird-feeding rally people to provide a contrast. The lovely people who want to protect Montrose Beach and The Magic Hedge are protecting something that matters; something that warrants saving. It may seem like a small thing, to protect just two tiny birds (and they are SO tiny), who just want to be left alone, at the cost of a whole big EDM festival that would make a bunch of people very happy and dance and whatever. Two birds versus all those many many people. I get it. It’s a small thing.
But it’s a crucial thing. First: There will always be EDM festivals. I mean, maybe not; I hope not, it’s not my favorite musical trend, but. There will not always be piping plovers. There will definitely not always be spaces like The Magic Hedge. These spaces are fewer and farther between. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
And: it says something so amazing and so beautiful about the human capacity. When we suspend our own immediate pleasure to do something that is purely good. No one is making any money off of the plovers; there’s no white guy in an office depositing an absurd check into his overflowing bank account because we save them. We save them, and then they are saved, and that’s all we get out of it.
What is more hopeful, more beautiful, more encouraging than that?
There are a lot of causes; there’s a lot to fight for. Humans are terrible to other humans. Racism is institutionalized. Income inequality has manifested day-to-day violence that outdoes fiction. There’s xenophobia at the border; there’s xenophobia running Washington; there’s xenophobia in your backyard. There are wars, always, all the time, pitting man against man — and there can be no overstating how grim and awful it all is.
The plovers are wonderful. And they’re not asking us to do anything but leave them alone. We can do that. And when we do that (because I think we will; I think that’s what we will decide to do; I believe in humanity at the end of the day), I’ll feel proud to be human. Which is rare for me.
And that will be its own gift.
I have painted five Great Lakes Piping Plover portraits, and I’m selling the originals for $20 each. They’re small — 4.5 x 6” — but I’m going to give the money to the Chicago Audubon Society and and Chicago Ornithological Society to be directed toward the plovers. If you would like to do a small financial thing to help the plovers, and receive an original painting, hop onto my Instagram page and send me a direct message. I’ll mark when paintings are sold. If I sell all five, I’ll paint five more until I can’t sell them anymore, or until the plovers are saved.
Here are the images, in a little carousel gallery you can scroll through: