Cook County is the most birded county in the United States and why it matters

With Global Big Day and Spring Bird Count here on Saturday, it's time to take stock of our standing versus other major metro areas.

I have a rivalry with New York. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Cleveland. When I was a kid, there was this cheesy ad campaign, “New York’s The Big Apple But Cleveland’s A Plum.” I kid you not.

I’m also no fan of the Yankees or Knicks. This stretches from sports into birding for me though, too. A couple years back, a sort of internet birding celebrity came out here on a junket from New York to go birding at Montrose Point. He didn’t talk to any locals, didn’t really immerse himself in the experience at all. Of course, Montrose was absolutely dead on the day he came. It happens sometimes. Within a few hours, he was back on a plane to New York. That was that.

Truly, one of the reasons I created “Monty and Rose” was because of New York. If a pair of Piping Plovers nested in Central Park, we’d be hearing about it forever. Just look at the silliness over a likely domestic Mandarin Duck a couple years ago.

That’s part of the reason why Cook County’s status as No. 1 most-birded county in the United States matters. In case you missed it, Cook County racked up 804 checklists on eBird last year on Global Big Day, a date when people around the world attempt to see as many birds as they can in one day. The 804 checklists were the most of any county in the U.S. by a wide margin. It makes sense, too. We’re a highly populous county 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 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.

Global Big Day is coming up again this Saturday. It’s a great day to be outside, near peak spring migration. It’s a good day to start using eBird to record your sightings. In Illinois, the date coincides with the Spring Bird Count, first organized by longtime Illinois ornithologist Vernon Kleen in the early 1970s.  

As much as it’s about the number of lists, it’s about the opportunity for conservation and advocacy that this widespread interest represents. Not to mention the rich data sets the sightings provide for scientists and land managers. Appreciating birds is bound to lead to actions that address their well-being. Indeed, the community of avid habitat restorationists here mirrors that of its birders. We have the potential to lead the way in restoring bird populations in a time when their numbers have declined.

As sweet as it was to beat New York, there’s a need to ramp up citizen science, advocacy and conservation everywhere. Looking back, Tompkins County, N.Y., home to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, wasn’t too far behind Chicago. New York City and surrounding counties were even further back. But maybe birding’s an area where we can transcend our status as Second City and take the lead instead.

Celebrate Piping Plovers with a free sticker!

In case you missed it Friday, my friend Bill Fogarty of Black Coffee Pictures came up with the design for this sticker to celebrate Chicago’s Piping Plovers. Enter your information by clicking below and we’ll get one out to you now that Monty and Rose are back on the beach.

Free sticker

Here’s a little context on Chicago’s plovers from New Jersey (a lot of East Coast stuff today!). Todd Pover is Senior Wildlife Biologist for Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey (CWFNJ). Todd has been involved in research, monitoring, and management of beach nesting birds for over 25 years in New Jersey and other portions of the flyway. Piping Plovers nest at places like Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, where there are nearly 40 pairs, and CWFNJ is there to protect them. Here’s something he wrote on Facebook last week:

If you follow me, you probably already know I am a little obsessed with the Monty and Rose piping plover story, okay maybe any plover story, but this one just keeps unfurling new “Hollywood worthy" plot twists. Mostly, I just wish our plovers in NJ got the same welcome as this Chicago pair. To be fair, there are plenty of folks in Jersey that eagerly await for the first plover to arrive, but they were literally lined up at the site to catch the first glimpse of Monty and Rose!!

This is true, though I don’t think the Jersey plovers are smack-dab in the middle of a metropolis like ours. But the kernel of this thought resonates with me. Why can’t there be welcoming committees awaiting all sorts of migrants each spring? It could be the neighborhood House Wren or the urban Chimney Swifts. Let’s make it happen!

TWiB Notes

My sighting of a Wild Turkey at LaBagh Woods caught the attention of Block Club Chicago. Likely the same bird has been seen a handful of times in Sauganash and other neighborhoods……Block Club Chicago reports that Rep. Bobby Rush is proposing that April be named “Hazel Johnson Environmental Justice Month” to recognize the late environmental justice pioneer. One of last year’s Piping Plover chicks was named Hazel to honor Ms. Johnson……Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a rare treat in Chicago, were seen at Air Station Prairie, Montrose Point and Skokie Lagoons in recent days……Eastern Whip-poor-wills are a tough bird to locate most any time, but an accommodating individual pleased many with good views at Montrose Point last week.

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