Birds on the Brink

Bird watching, or birding, as the purists prefer to call it, is one of North America’s fastest growing and most popular hobbies. But many wild birds are in serious trouble due to climate change. Will they go the way of their ancestors, the dinosaurs, and disappear? Jon McGinty speaks to experts about the prospect.

Orchard oriole migratory patterns are altering due to climate change. (David C. Olson photos)

Bird watching, or birding, as the purists prefer to call it, is one of North America’s fastest growing and most popular hobbies. An estimated 50 million birders in the U.S. spend billions of dollars each year on travel, birdseed and paraphernalia in pursuit of their avian interest. In Texas alone, birders generate more tourist dollars than all professional sports combined.

In October of last year, the National Audubon Society released a report, “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.” Using data collected by birders and scientists over the past five years, including the latest climate change models, the report attempts to forecast the survival of North American birds through the end of the century.

According to the report, 65 percent of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from the warming climate. Even common birds like the northern flicker, American robin and bobolink will experience declining populations and radically different ranges in the near future.

Hear From the Experts

Juliet Moderow is a biology instructor at Highland Community College in Freeport, and president emeritus of the Northwest Illinois Audubon Society. She explains that increasing global temperatures have both direct and indirect effects on bird populations.

“One direct effect is that spring temperatures are warmer, so seasonal changes occur earlier,” she says. “This means that birds that begin migrating due to temperature changes are arriving earlier than usual and hatching their young before their food supply of plants and insects are available for them.”

Increasing droughts, wildfires and floods have combined to reduce some habitats for birds, especially grassland varieties. Heavy rainfall retards plant growth and potentially drowns vulnerable fledglings.

Indirect effects of climate change include sea level rise, which all but eliminates shorebird habitats, and cropland expansion due to shifting human population locations, she says.

The National Audubon Society’s website provides a Birds and Climate Visualizer, based on ZIP codes, which allows the viewer to find the predicted impact on birds in your specific location, using three hypothetical scenarios at three possible temperature rises.

For example, in the 61063 ZIP code in western Winnebago County, with an imminent global temperature rise of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, out of 165 common birds, their vulnerability to losing more than half of their current range is: 1-high, 16-moderate, 45-low, and 55-stable.

“If they lose their habitat, they have to go somewhere else, or they disappear,” says Moderow. “And what affects birds affects us all. We are animals, too.”

To help mitigate these changes, Moderow has some familiar suggestions.

“Help preserve habitats for wild birds,” she encourages. “Plant native species in your backyard. Lawns are not native. We are part of a migratory pathway that has existed for millions of years, and the birds passing through here need places to rest and feed. Besides, native plants have awesome root systems. They are meant to be here, and they don’t need to be watered. If you have the habitat, they will come.”

Moderow also strongly suggests reducing your energy consumption to minimize the use of fossil fuels, and to support legislation that implements such policies. Also, get outdoors and experience the avian world firsthand.

“If you go on just one birding field trip, you will recognize how amazing birds are,” she says. “That’s what happened to me. My hearing changed when I started to learn bird calls. And teach your kids how awesome nature is, to recognize we are a part of it all.”

Each year, various governmental agencies collect information from citizen volunteers throughout the nation regarding the quantity, movement and condition of birds in our country. These censuses in our area include the spring and Christmas bird counts, the breeding bird counts, and the crane census, among others.

The first spring bird count in Illinois took place in 1972, with 650 observers in 62 counties, and has grown to include all 102 counties. During one 24-hour period, volunteers record all birds seen or heard, the number of hours spent looking for birds, and the number of miles driven or walked. This information is then compiled and sent to the Illinois Natural History Survey to become part of its more than 40 years of data.

Jack Armstrong is a retired science teacher, treasurer of the Rockford Park District Board, and a member of the Sinnissippi Audubon Society. He also coordinates the annual spring bird count for Winnebago County, which took place this year on May 9, in the midst of the spring migration. “This year we had 41 volunteers in Winnebago County, up from last year,” says Armstrong. “We observed 167 species, also more than last year.”

The breeding bird census is conducted in mid-June to July, after the migration is completed. Armstrong has participated in that event for the past 27 years. During the census, volunteers drive the same 25-mile route each year, stopping every half-mile to listen to and observe any birds for three minutes, counting as many as can be identified within a quarter-mile. They then drive to the next stop and repeat the process – 50 times.

This information is then reported to the U.S. Geological Survey in Patuxent, Md., which originally established the routes all over the country. According to Armstrong, there are more than 40 such routes in Illinois alone.

“My route is definitely farmland and fields, with little woods,” says Armstrong. “Most grassland and prairie bird populations are decreasing quite radically, due primarily to habitat loss here and in the Southern U.S., Central and South America, where the birds go in the winter. Farmers in the U.S. plant monocrops, and tear out fencerow vegetation, which used to provide homes for a great number of birds. And global warming is changing bird migratory patterns and ranges.”

Armstrong says the National Audubon Society and its chapters constantly lobby Congress to pass laws favorable to birds, such as migratory regulations and protection for wetlands. They also advocate legislation that promotes building codes to reduce bird strikes.

Jennifer Kuroda is current president of the Sinnissippi Audubon Society (SAS) in Rockford. In March 2018, she learned that a pair of peregrine falcons was nesting on a ledge in downtown Rockford. With the help of Mary Hennan, director of the Chicago Peregrine Program, she helped initiate the installation of a nest camera with public access to the birds.

For the third year in a row, Louise and Li’l Kool, the nesting pair, have begun a family in a drainage channel. Louise laid four eggs in mid-April, three of which hatched in May.

“They got banded on June 16,” says Kuroda. “When they started to fledge [fly from the nest], we organized a ‘fledge-watch’ to monitor them. Volunteers waited on the ground outside the building, from dawn to dusk, and returned them to the nest if they fell, so they could try and fly again. They are a newly recovered species, and we wanted to help them survive.”

The public can view the falcon cam at

In response to the National Audubon Society’s study, “Survival by Degrees,” Kuroda began a series of public art projects in Rockford to call public attention to the endangered birds. In 2018, she convinced artist Therese Rowinski to include a yellow-headed blackbird in her mural next to her studio at 317 Market St.

Last year, Kuroda and SAS joined the CRE8IV mural festival to sponsor Brett Whitacre’s Baltimore oriole mural at 203 N. Church St., and to encourage artist Julia Avgostinovich to include several Illinois birds in her mural at 316 W. State St.

Later, Kuroda collaborated with Lincoln Middle School art teacher Jillian Myers and her art students, to produce a long wall mural near the corner of East State and Ninth streets, which depicts the golden-crowned kinglet, another endangered species. “It’s been a challenge to get the funding and permits to make these murals happen,” says Kuroda, “but I would like to see more such murals in Rockford. We sponsored and led several mural walks last summer that were very successful. It was an opportunity to meet with community members who are interested in public art, and possibly birding. We were able to get the message out about the impact of climate change on the bird population.”

Kuroda has learned that other Audubon Society chapters around the state are working on similar bird mural projects. Ultimately, she would like to produce a map so people could locate them as they travel through Illinois.

Recently, in collaboration with the Great Lakes Audubon office, Kuroda nominated the Colored Sands Forest Preserve to be designated an Important Bird Area (IBA), as determined by the Illinois IBA technical committee. After reviewing the data collected by the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (more than 53 years of it), the IBA status was announced on April 24, 2020.

“This status will emphasize the importance of maintaining the preserve, because we know there are a lot of birds that migrate through there,” she says. “It will also place them on an Audubon map, so people who are looking for IBAs to visit can easily find it.”

Lee Johnson, retired director of the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, is an icon in the local birding world. Now 88, he started birding in 1943 and has kept daily records of his observations since 1946.

Johnson has gone on birding expeditions in six continents and all 50 states. His “life list” of observed species is currently at 800, which puts him in the exclusive company of fewer than 100 other birders worldwide.

“My older sister got me interested in birds when we were in grade school,” recalls Johnson. “In 1948, we became the fourth and fifth members of the North Central Illinois Ornithological Society [NCIOS], locally called the Rockford Bird Club. I’m the current president.”

Johnson started banding birds in Winnebago County in 1956, the same year he purchased 20 acres of forest along the Sugar River. He organized a bird banding station there with volunteers in 1967, and Jack Armstrong was one of his first volunteers.

“I sold the property to Winnebago County in 1976, with two stipulations,” says Johnson. “One, that bird banding would continue there as long as people were interested in it; and two, that the south end of the property would become a nature preserve.”

That property is now the Colored Sands Forest Preserve, the first such designation in the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District. The bird banding station was formally incorporated in 1999 as the Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (SBBO), and is still in operation. Johnson operated the bird banding station under his Master’s Permit until 2016, when Mike and Deb Eickman took over.

A lifetime of experiences in the outdoors has led Johnson to make some sobering observations.

“The natural world is in serious trouble,” he says. “It’s hard to find any group of plants or animals that is not, including us. Today, most bird populations are less than 10 percent of what they were when I started birdwatching, some only 1 percent or less. People who haven’t been at this as long as I have are not aware of it.”

According to Johnson, most of the birds captured at the SBBO in the spring or fall are Neotropical migrants, who winter in South or Central America, then pass through or nest in this area in the spring. They move mostly at night, some covering considerable distances, as long as there are favorable winds.

“They navigate by the stars and other means,” says Johnson, “so if they run into a cold front with cloudy weather, they land wherever they are to wait it out. This is called a fallout.”

In the past, Johnson witnessed massive fallouts of birds in this area, numbering in the thousands, with 30 or 40 birds in a single tree in the middle of the city.

“But there aren’t enough birds anymore to experience such kinds of events,” he says. “The only places where you get numbers like that today are in major migration traps, where birds stop before crossing the Great Lakes, or along the Gulf coast of Texas, where they rest after flying across the Gulf of Mexico.”

Johnson attributes this dramatic decrease in birds to the destruction of natural habitat by increased human population, and the altered environment by climate change.

Migratory patterns and ranges are also being altered by global warming, says Johnson. Southern birds, like the orchard oriole, are coming further north, and northern birds, like the evening grosbeak, aren’t coming down anymore. Pelicans, once common only west of the Mississippi River, have moved east and can be seen on the Pecatonica River each spring. Sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and Canada geese were rarely seen in northern Illinois, but now are a frequent occurrence.

As expected, Johnson is an enthusiastic advocate of birding as a healthy hobby.

“It’s challenging, both mentally and physically,” he says, “and can be a very active sport. It’s probably why I’m as healthy as I am today. Birding is also semi-competitive, as you try to see how many birds you can identify on a given day or in a certain place. And, the hobby has changed over the years, becoming more technological. When I started, field guides were collections of drawings or black and white photographs. Now you can photograph a bird in the field with a smartphone, and an app will identify it for you. Soon you will be able to send that info to your database computer and update your life list automatically.”

Mike Eickman started volunteering at the bird banding station at Colored Sands Forest Preserve in 1989, and his wife, Deb, in 2005. He is certified by the North American Bird Banding Council, and the station operates under a license from the U.S. Geological Survey. Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (SBBO) is one of the largest small-bird banding operations in the country that is open to the public. In its 53 years of operation, volunteers have banded more than 350,000 birds.

“The first year we netted over 14,000 birds, but now we capture only 4-5,000 a year,” says Eickman. “We average about 120 species each year. The most birds we ever banded in one day were 845.”

The banding station was created primarily to study trends in migrating birds as they pass through the area in the spring and fall, but they also trap resident species. The station is operated entirely by volunteers, and financial support comes from donations by organizations and individuals.

“Usually, we are here Thursday mornings, Friday afternoons, all day Saturday, and Sunday morning,” says Eickman. “The season lasts from March through May, and August through October. We are open to the public, but people should call first to make sure someone is here.” The phone number at the SBBO is (815) 629-2671.

The procedure involves putting up 40 thin-mesh “mist” nets between poles in various locations near the station, which are checked every 45 minutes to an hour. When birds are found caught in the nets, they are gently removed and carried back to the station in a mesh bag, where they are examined.

Data, such as species, age, weight and sex are recorded, as well as time, date and net location. All this is eventually entered into a national database at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. If a bird already wears a band, the number on it is also recorded.

“We get the bands from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,” says Eickman. “There are different sizes for different birds, but each one has its own unique nine-digit number, like a Social Security number.”

After banding, these small birds are released through a special opening in the station window; larger birds are released outside. Sometimes they catch the same bird more than once on the same day.

They also have a special raptor trapping station on top of a nearby hill. A special lure attached to a thin line is used to attract nearby raptors into hoop nets on the ground. During examination, the large birds are held in special hollow cylinders to calm them while vital statistics are being taken.

“The only birds we don’t band here if captured are bald eagles and hummingbirds,” says Eickman. “They require special handling and a special permit.”

Mike, his wife, and other volunteers present educational programs and train people interested in volunteering, including college students. One young volunteer was awarded Young Volunteer of the Year by the American Birding Association.

“We get visitors and volunteers from all over,” says Eickman, “Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, and throughout northern Illinois. Most bird banding stations are closed to the public, but we welcome visitors. That’s what makes us so successful.”

How to Photograph Birds

Readers of Northwest Quarterly Magazine are abundantly familiar with the work of local photographer David C. Olson whose outstanding images of nature and wildlife frequently appear in this publication. In addition to his commercial studio work, Olson often leads photo expeditions to some of North America’s wildest locations and instructs participants in how to capture dramatic photos of birds and other wildlife.

“To be a good bird photographer, it helps to be a good birder,” says Olson. “Be able to identify birds on sight, or to recognize their songs. Each bird has its own quirks and preferred habitats. Bring along a good field guide, and know the birds you are looking for.”

While Olson travels far and wide to exotic locations in his search for subjects, he recommends that beginning bird photographers stay closer to home.

“Go to areas where birds are habituated to people, like backyards or city parks,” he says. “Birds in the wild are not used to people, are easily startled, and may flee more quickly. Even shooting through a window at home is a good place to start. But put the lens up to the glass, to eliminate reflections.”

While cellphone images may be sufficient for sharing through social media, if you intend to produce photographs for display or publication, Olson recommends the following equipment:

• A good digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR) with removable lenses, each with image stabilization.
• A tripod or monopod.
• A good pair of binoculars to spot the birds before taking photos.
• “Before investing in expensive equipment, decide what you’re going to do with your images,” he suggests. “Does it justify spending a lot of money? If your lenses aren’t as long [powerful] as you want, you can always crop the image on your computer to simulate a closer view.”

It also helps to know how to use your equipment quickly, since birds give you little time to adjust settings for proper exposure, Olson warns. And when out in the field, wear earth tones rather than bright colors.

“You can also use your car as a blind, since birds don’t usually recognize it as a threat until you exit,” he suggests. “The minute you get out, they can get spooked.”

Olson maintains bird feeders on his rural property, which he fills every morning before heading for work. He also provides a source of nearby water, heated in the wintertime. For the past 16 years, he has documented the arrival times at his feeders of migratory species each spring, noting that some birds arrive within days of the same date each year.

“To save birds from predators while feeding, put your feeders close to bushes or trees,” says Olson, “but not too close to windows. When they spook, the birds might crash into them. Stickers on the outside surface can interrupt reflections and make bird strikes less likely.

“Above all, as in any kind of nature photography, practice patience and persistence,” says Olson. “Keep going out, don’t get frustrated. The rewards are amazing!”