Chicago is *really* into birds
A look at Big Day results from Oct. 8 for major metropolitan areas.
Cook County is the most-birded county in the United States—at least in springtime—and no other county is even close. Fall is different, though. The migrants are more drab (picture the “Confusing Fall Warblers” page in your Peterson Field Guide) and there’s less of the excitement of emerging from our dens after a long, cold winter.
An analysis of eBird data from October Global Big Day, this past Oct. 8, aka World Migratory Bird Day, shows that fall birding hasn’t deterred Chicagoans in terms of effort and time spent in the field. The biggest Big Day of alltime seems to support the case that Chicago is the most enthusiastic big birding city, especially when combined with its boffo numbers during springtime. (For the purposes of this post, Cook County will serve as the proxy for Chicago—eBird doesn’t allow for easy sorting of data at the city level.)
Cook County doesn’t have the most birds in fall, or even the most checklists. Rather, the county’s birders rank extremely high on the number of species seen per checklist submitted. In this case, the “Enthusiasm Index” is measured by the number of people out birding and submitting lists and the number of species that are possible. If you love birding, you know that a great day in the field more than makes up for whether you see all that many birds. Heck, many folks submit checklists when all they’ve seen are the back alley House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Rock Pigeons. That’s the definition of enthusiasm!
In looking at the Enthusiasm Index for 25 major counties, Cook County smashes most every other major county, with 286 checklists yielding 144 species. Cook County residents just love being out birding more than most metropolitan areas. And why not? We’re at the crossroads of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains. There’s a diversity of habitat, from the swampy Calumet region in the south to the wooded hills of the Palos to the migrant traps on the lakefront. We have several top-notch birding clubs and institutions like the Friends of the Chicago River, Openlands, Field Museum, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Shedd Aquarium and more that foster interest in nature and wildlife. All these things have resulted in a vibrant birding community.
Cook County’s enthusiasm index is 1.986, second only to King County, Wash., home to Seattle, at 2.03. King County’s 272 checklists resulted in “only” 134 species. New York, you might ask? We top NYC by a wide margin Queens, Kings, and New York (Manhattan), counties or boroughs that make up most of New York City, by a wide margin. What Los Angeles has on us with checklists and species (with nearly double the population), we have enthusiasm on them (1.524 index for Angelenos). LA’s climate and habitat diversity—high mountains to an ocean coast—also gives it some advantages in racking up 233 species: Multiple parakeet and hummingbird species, everything from Mountain Quail to Wandering Tattler, Clark’s Nutcracker to Rhinoceros Auklet. It’s hard to imagine competing with that!
Still, we had some highlights on Oct. 8: A Neotropic Cormorant at Park 566, seen by Kelly Ballantyne, a LeConte’s Sparrow seen by Xiaoni Xu at Rainbow Beach, Nelson’s Sparrow seen by Carl Giometti at Rainbow Beach, seven Stilt Sandpipers seen by Isoo O’Brien at a marsh in Ford Heights, and a late Osprey seen by Phillip Stosberg at Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center.
On the other hand, Cook County ranks lower than other jurisdictions when it comes to checklists per 100 residents. Cook County’s .0054 is in the middle of the pack. Middlesex County, Mass., home to Boston, has a whopping .1291 checklists per 100 residents. They love birding, and maybe more specifically eBird, in Beantown.
As I’ve said before, as much as it’s about the number of lists, it’s about the opportunity for conservation and advocacy that this widespread enthusiasm represents. Appreciating birds is bound to lead to actions that address their well-being. That’s the opportunity we have here in Chicago and the county: to educate civic leaders about birds so that they may be prioritized. Our birds—and our bird-loving populace—are tangible assets that should be celebrated.
Rusty days are here again
It’s good to be vigilant when encountering blackbirds at this time of year. That’s because Rusty Blackbirds, an uncommon northern visitor, are starting to make their way south. These birds like to visit wet meadows and swampy woodland edges.
Many of the more common blackbirds—European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles—have already flocked up and moved off their nesting grounds. Same with Brown-headed Cowbirds.
A couple things to watch out for when trying to distinguish Rusties from the more common blackbirds. First, like Scut Farkas in “A Christmas Story,” Rusty Blackbirds have yellow eyes. So help me god, yellow eyes. This stands out more than one might expect. They also have a “rusty gate” vocalization that differs quite a bit from the harsh cry of the grackle. The rusty gate sound is more like a rusty gate that just received some WD-40. Their size is more like that of a Red-winged Blackbird or Brown-headed Cowbird—shorter-tailed than a grackle. And last, they can be rusty in appearance, especially in the fall, when males and females take on a more brownish look.
Rusty Blackbirds, like many breeding birds of the boreal region, are facing challenges due to habitat loss. So every sighting—and record in eBird—really does make a difference when it comes to understanding their population.
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