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Trying to save birds from the wilds of the big city

Bags hurt birds collected Thursday by Chicago Bird CollisiMonitors. Volunteers awaiting transport Willowbrook Wildlife Center for care. | Neil Steinberg

Bags of hurt birds collected Thursday by Chicago Bird Collision Monitors. Volunteers awaiting transport to Willowbrook Wildlife Center for care. | Neil Steinberg photo

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Updated: October 9, 2012 2:30PM

The early bird catches the worm, but how early must you wake to catch the early bird? In Annette Prince’s case, it’s 4:30 a.m. Thursday to head downtown to collect birds, both living and dead, whose journey from the wilds of Canada to the rainforests of South America have been interrupted by the brightly lit trap of Chicago.

“We have about 10 people out today,” says Prince, director of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, a group of volunteers who fan out over downtown every day during migration season — mid-August to early November, and again in the spring — to gather birds that collide with buildings during the night.

Small birds generally fly at night to avoid predators. “They’re going all night down the lakefront, they’re looking for a place to stop, they unfortunately stop here,” says Prince. “They’re looking for green areas, or are confused, and come down to these buildings. They don’t see there’s glass.”

The birds stun themselves against windows, trying to get to trees and fountains inside lobbies, or are fooled by reflections of nearby trees and fall to the sidewalk, where the birds are either rescued or trod upon.

Down an alley, Prince finds a Swaison’s thrush, stunned, eyes squeezed shut, wings drooping, and transfers it to a paper bag.

She’s found everything from owls to hawks in the eight years she’s been doing this; the group has collected 150 species, mostly songbirds, warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers. As with people, it is usually out-of-towners unfamiliar with the territory who get into trouble. “City birds like sparrows, pigeons and starlings never hit windows,” Prince says.

Prince, 54, moves fast, eyes scanning the sidewalk along the building, a jittery alertness that itself is almost birdlike. She cuts a singular figure, in bright green Chicago Bird Collision Monitors T-shirt and gym shoes, carrying a green net on a pole and a black bag. She stops to scrutinize an alley with her binoculars and a FedEx delivery man notices her and breaks into a benevolent smile.

Prince picks up a small piece of wood and puts it in a nearby trash can. More out of regard for her fellow monitors than environmentalism. “Every time you see a piece of debris, you think, ‘Is that a bird?’” she says. “I’m not trying to be Streets and San.”

When she sees an actual bird, such as the one in front of a revolving door on North LaSalle, she breaks into a run to get to it.

She has a job, as a speech therapist. Why bother doing this in her spare time?

“These birds have been migrating for thousands and thousands of years,” she says. “It’s just in the past hundred that these barriers, these skyscrapers, have been in the way. . . . Birds incur a huge amount of death in migration, it’s the leading cause of death; storms, running out of food, dying of exhaustion, they’re pushed to their physical limits. All those things are natural things. This is something added on top of it. An added hazard. A billion birds a year are killed by collisions in North America alone.”

Prince rendezvouses with two other volunteers, John Kaiser and his wife, Suzanne Checchia, who has a Whole Foods shopping bag holding two dozen dead birds. “A lot of ovenbirds,” she says, handing over a baggie containing a colorful Magnolia Warbler.

“Oh man,” says Prince, examining the half-ounce bird. “Look at this guy, just gorgeous.”

By days’ end they’ll find 75 birds, 35 alive. There’s a forensic birding quality to the effort; they always try to identify dead ones.

Checchia opens the door to her red Jetta and there, in a box, are 14 living birds, each in its own brown lunch bag, some bags rattling slightly. They’ll be rushed to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn where 80 percent will survive to be banded and released into the wild. The dead birds go to the Field Museum, which keeps them for study.

The group started in 2003. In addition to collecting birds, they work with building owners to encourage them to dim lighting at night and treat windows to reduce their allure to birds. They have 100 volunteers, but are always looking for more, who must take a two-hour training session to learn how to spot and handle birds. The next one is Sept. 10 at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. There’s more info at

“It can be hard getting up in the morning,” Prince says. “But it’s very rewarding. Our volunteers are not only there to save the individual birds, but to raise awareness.”

Prince is on the way back to her car when she spies a warbler on the ground by the small park at Franklin Street. In a flash she’s beside it, on her knees, carefully placing her net over it. “I want to call this a Northern Parula,” she says, delicately holding the bird. “He’s tangled,” she says. “His wings are bound to his body by spider webbing, which is really very strong.” With tremendous care, she unwraps the bird, then gently sets it in a paper bag for a brief detour to Glen Ellyn on its way to South America for the winter.

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