DOWNTOWN — In Annette Prince's line of work, the early bird saves lives.
Prince and other volunteers for the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors stalk Chicago's Loop every day for half the year in search of migratory birds injured from hitting skyscraper windows.
The work starts at 5 a.m. as the volunteers race against hungry gulls, rats and feral cats before the birds become breakfast, and against shoes and car tires, before the birds become roadkill.
Kyla Gardner describes the role of Chicago's "Bird Collision Monitors:"
The most common injury is head trauma, so the birds are easy prey while they remain disoriented, stunned and temporarily flightless.
"The major job of saving them is getting them out of harm's way in time," said Prince, the group's director. "It's critical for us to be there in the morning."
Thousands of birds
Hundreds of species of bird migrate to Chicago in the middle of the night during the migration seasons of mid-August to mid-November in the fall, and mid-March to mid-June in the spring.
The birds use the stars as their navigation system, but they can become confused by the lights on city skyscrapers. They sometimes spend hours circling buildings before becoming exhausted or colliding with a building, mistaking glass for sky.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center estimates 365 million to 988 million birds are killed in collisions in the U.S. each year. In the 1½ square miles Prince and her network of 100 volunteers can cover, they pick up about 5,000 birds per year.
Birds that touch down for food and rest Downtown can be confused by another skyscraper staple: a beautiful lobby.
"Many of the lobbies that have fountains, landscaping and trees are brightly lit up, and a bird would choose to go toward that," Prince said. "If it sees a really lovely palm tree, and a bird does not know that there is a transparent barrier, it looks protective, warm and bright."
Chicago was the first U.S. city to adopt the Lights Out program, an effort to dim decorative lights from 11 p.m. to sunrise during migration months.
The program is a collaboration between the city, the Chicago Audubon Society and the Building Owners and Managers Association.
Though many buildings managers are eager to collaborate with the program, the buildings still aren't perfect, having been designed before bird migration was considered, Prince said.
Today, the US Green Building Council recognizes "Bird Collision Deterrence" as a credit that counts toward a building being LEED-certified as environmentally-friendly.
Prince has a good eye for spotting a tiny brown speck of a bird hundreds of feet away. She carries binoculars and a net to trap the birds in. Alive or dead, the birds are carefully placed in a brown paper bag that marks their species, location and time of discovery.
Her volunteers range from retirees to zoology students to lawyers who work in the Loop and head to their office after the morning pickup.
"Every time you catch one, especially when they're alive, and you're able to get them out of the city to go on their migratory path, it's exciting," said Mike Quigley, a master's degree student at Brookfield Zoo and a Norwood Park resident. "Once you catch it, you're surprised how warm a bird is. When you hold it, its heart is beating so fast."
Quigley found two live marsh birds, a Virginia Rail and a Sora, one Saturday recently.
On a slow day, the collision monitors may only find a handful of birds. On a busy day, they can find as many as 600.
It just depends whether the wind and weather are good for migration.
Over the course of the year, about 2,000 birds are found alive and taken to a wildlife center in suburban Willowbrook. Most just need rest in a quiet and dark place, and those who need more veterinary care are treated. Most survive, are released in nearby forest preserves, and continue migrating, Prince said.
The most common bird Prince and her volunteers find is the white-throated sparrow.
One particular brown creeper was found April 17, 2008, at Michigan Plaza. The stunned bird survived, was tagged with a leg band, and released.
Exactly one year later to the day, the same bird was found just a block from where it had hit the year before.
Those types of details, and what they could mean for understanding the behavior of bird species, are what make collecting the birds so important for the Field Museum.
'Good for science'
"It's good for the birds. It's good for science. It's good for everybody," said Ben Marks, birds collection manager at the Field Museum, about the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors program.
The 3,000 birds that are found dead each year by the collision monitors are turned over to the museum's research collection.
Drawers upon drawers are filled with the preserved specimens on the museum's upper floors.
"You might think 'Why would you ever need that many white-throated sparrows?' " Marks said. "But we're just touching the tips of the iceberg on what we can tell. Just like no two people are the same, no two birds are the same. ... It's building toward a very powerful data set."
Each year, the museum gets about 70 visitors who use the bird collection. Another 130 collection loans are shipped around the country, Marks said.
The Field Museum has been collecting birds on its own around McCormick Place for 35 years, and for the first time, a visiting intern will be delving into that data set this summer.
"It's exciting," Marks said. "These specimens can actually aid in our understanding of migration and lead to conservation of migrating songbirds."
For the average Chicagoan not pursuing bird-watching as a hobby, he or she might never have seen the songbirds that fly through Chicago in the dead of night.
Marks said he sometimes gets calls from people who think they've found a kiwi bird, a flightless bird from New Zealand, but they've actually found an American woodcock.
"They look exotic. Many of them are coming from the tropics," Prince said. People who stumble upon them and call Prince "are amazed at what they see. You're used to going out into the middle of the woods to find birds like this, and they're right here in the middle of the city."
Educating the public is a large part of Prince's mission for the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, and she especially enjoys reaching out to kids, who will be the architects of the future.
Prince recently spoke to a first-grade class at National Teachers Academy, 55 W. Cermak Road.
The class was in the middle of figuring out a way to make the windowed bridge between their school and a Chicago Park District building.
Julie Wang, a teacher at National Teachers Academy, said the kids were excited about the science project that had real-world applications.
"All of them are like 'Yes, we want to save the birds,'" Wang said.
The kids debated hanging artwork on the windows, replacing the glass, placing netting on it and cutting holes in for the birds to fly through, before settling on using a special, reflective, bird-safe tape.
"It's definitely a huge problem," Wang said. "Thinking of the students as they're our future, and if they realize they can solve a problem like this, they'll take that as they grow up."