Birding and environmental justice aren't mutually exclusive

If you’re into birds, you should care about what happens with General Iron

The Southeast Side is a neighborhood of tidy rows of homes near some of the most biodiverse natural areas in Illinois. Nearby are birding hotspots Eggers Grove Forest Preserve and the Powers State Recreation Area (aka Wolf Lake). The two sites rank 10th and 12th in Chicago, respectively, for number of species observed, according to eBird. George Washington High School has been home to a nesting population of Monk Parakeets.

The new location for scrap metal shredder General Iron would be on 116th Street, near where it meets Avenue O, right in the shadow of Washington High. The Southeast Side is a mostly Black and Brown community that’s already overburdened with pollution. In case you’ve missed it, General Iron is headed there from Lincoln Park. The move is almost complete; General Iron and its parent company RMG have already built an $80 million facility and plan to move in by the end of March. There’s still an effort to stop RMG from opening the plant, which would process 2,000 tons of scrap per day and may emit a “toxic fluff” of lead, mercury and zinc into the air. People for Community Recovery, which I wrote about recently, has filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And six advocates and community members have been on a hunger strike for almost two weeks, requesting a delay to the permit.

“Racist policies are killing our neighborhood by making it a dumping ground for the dirtiest and most dangerous polluters,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, another HUD complainant, to the Chicago Sun-Times in October.

One of the great things about birding is losing yourself in the moment, in a bird, in an ecosystem. But in searching for birds, it’s also about people and communities. The health and well-being of humans is one and the same with the health and well-being of ecosystems.

I’d been looking for a more eloquent way of articulating how birding fits into the broader environmental movement when I attended a virtual event featuring Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father” of environmental justice, and Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery in January. Johnson is the daughter of Hazel Johnson, the “mother” of environmental justice and a longtime Altgeld Gardens resident (Hazel is the namesake for one of our 2020 Piping Plover chicks). Dr. Bullard is a past recipient of the Champions of Earth Lifetime Achievement Award from the United Nations Environmental Programme and the foremost scholar on environmental justice. Here is something he said, in reference to the various prongs of the environmental movement:

“This is the same movement. [Environmental justice] deals with a whole lot of issues that connect.”

Dr. Bullard was referring to park justice and green space advocacy, but he may as well have been talking about birding. Too often, birding has been in its own niche, a pursuit separate from the movement toward clean energy, clean water, clean air, carbon reduction and even habitat restoration.

Undoubtedly, some of what General Iron emits will land in places like Eggers Grove and Wolf Lake as well as the troubling 16 tons of particulate matter sent toward George Washington High School, according to the Stop General Iron website.

“If the city really has to put up a site,” Cheryl Johnson told me in January, “why across the street from an elementary, a high school and residential? That is so much disregard.” 

RMG and General Iron have stated that they are building “an environmentally responsible” recycling facility. The reality is that we probably do need a recycling facility—a safe one—to process these metals somewhere. It just shouldn’t be on the Southeast Side.

And that leaves me with this thought. If society doesn’t take care to tend to environmental health for people, it’s unlikely much will be done to improve the plight of birds either. That’s why anyone who’s into birding should also care about General Iron.


It’s been a love story for the ages. Order a DVD of “Monty and Rose” between now and Friday and receive 20 percent off the purchase price in honor of Valentine’s Day. Enter the promo code NISH to receive the discount. Click here to order today.

The story behind the shot

I’ve been trying and trying to get a decent photograph of a Dark-eyed Junco this winter. They’ve been visiting a snow heap that’s under our suet feeder lately, picking up whatever the woodpeckers leave behind. One of the challenges is that I’m shooting through our dining room window. Another is that it’s just too shadowy when it’s sunny and too dim when it’s overcast. But in this photo there was just enough light to make the eye visible, which hasn’t been the case for most any of my junco photos this winter.

Lamenting the Super Bowl

I shared my Super Bowl prediction in a Superb Owl post with subscribers two Fridays ago. I was so certain that Kansas City was going to roll past Tampa Bay and forecast a 44-27 victory. We all know how that went. I underestimated KC’s loss of stalwart tackle Eric Fisher.

TWiB Notes

My documentary about Chicago’s Piping Plovers, “Monty and Rose,” has received two thumbs up in a review from Jessica Melfi of Bird Watcher’s Digest(!). I appeared on the BWD’s BirdSense podcast a couple weeks ago, in case you want to check it out…..On Friday I shared a piece about eBird with subscribers, a guide to eBird for people who are new to the platform. Feminist Bird Club has an event on Feb. 25 with NYC Audubon, “Intro to eBird,” that may be of interest. Register here…..The 2021 Wild Things Conference takes place virtually Feb. 19-21 and Feb. 26-28. The conference features an array of workshops and sessions on the land and wildlife of the Chicago region. I’ll be on a panel on Saturday talking about Monty and Rose. More information is here…..Friends of the Chicago River has just launched a podcast, “Inside, Out and About: An Invitation to Explore” that will journey on the river with the goal of deepening connections to nature. The first episode features the Chicago Portage National Historic Site in Lyons.

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