Thank you to my friend + collaborator, Brandon Ballengée, for introducing me to Collin van der Slujis. Collin was seeking information on endangered/threatened Chicago birds for his upcoming mural in Chicago located on a 9 story building on 1006 S. Michigan Avenue. Brandon suggested that we work together. Thank you to Collin for creating an inspiring mural + for the wonderful experience of getting to know him + his work!
I personally never knew what type of amazing birds were migrating through Chicago (from as far away as South America!) until I did Migratory Bird Building Strike Rescue + Recovery a few years ago. On 5.15.2013 a male Northern Parula that my trainer + I rescued from a building collision on Wacker Drive was treated + released later that day. That little bird (approx 4.5 in long, 0.2–0.4 oz) was able to survive + to hopefully breed. That little bird changed my life because it made me realize how important the survival of these birds is. The experience became the catalyst for a whole body of bird inspired artwork + design. This is perhaps a backwards way to become a birder, but I cannot express my gratitude enough to the Chicago Ornithological Society North Pond bird walks conducted by Geoffrey Williamson. I’ve learned more about birds/birding in the past 8 months, than as a lone birder just a few years prior. Birders need mentors (especially women birders).
I started my research for Collin by reviewing articles + looking at my own existing fieldwork. I also asked expert birders for their feedback on endangered/threatened birds + requested accounts of successful rebounds of Chicago birds. The stories they shared were fascinating.
Geoffrey Williamson: “Two more that come to mind that once were common in the Chicago area: Passenger Pigeon (now extinct) + the Greater Prairie-Chicken (gone from Chicago and hanging on by a thread in Illinois in part only because we supplement the birds here with individuals transported from Kansas). Some others: Yellow-headed Blackbird + Black Tern. We are on the eastern edge of the blackbirds range, but habitat loss is pushing them out. They nested not very long ago in southeast Chicago. Black Terns are in trouble everywhere. They too used to nest in Chicago. The same can be said for King Rail. All three are on the state endangered species list. The last three of these used to nest in the Lake Calumet area. The blackbird and the tern were still nesting in the Calumet area when I (started birding here but that ended quickly for the tern. When I started birding here (1990) the Calumet region was so full of birds, but the old timers told me how impoverished it was compared to the "old days." Now to me it is so impoverished compared to when I got here, when it was already impoverished.”
Beyond bird deaths caused by building collisions, we’ve lost so much bird habitat due to poor land management + invasive species - 300,000 ash trees were decimated in Chicago due to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer. Cats, unfortunately, are also an invasive species (side note: coyotes are the responsible choice for rat reduction). Additionally, there are also reports of LIVE HEALTHY trees being cut down in certain districts…just because they don’t like trees.
Collins powerful mural design embraces a bird that was once common, but has now disappeared from Chicago, the Yellow-headed Blackbird. His piece also highlights that the Red-headed Woodpecker is in need of conservation before it too disappears from Chicago. Ultimately, Collin’s mural is very much about hope – “From Doom to Boom”. Through conservation we can turn things around – look at the success of the Peregrine Falcon in Chicago (once on the brink of extinction, now there are record numbers in Illinois)! Yet we must never forget one of the most cautionary tales of extinction - the Passenger Pigeon (at the time the most abundant bird in North America – it went extinct within 100 years). Street art is a pure form of democracy – elitism (in all of its forms) always restricts the reach of communication + connection - through exclusion. The beauty of Collins mural is that street art is truly for the people. These birds are for the people too - bringing joy, beauty + life...but they need our help.
Big thank you's to: Geoffrey Williamson, Steve Huggins, Carl Giacometti, Josh Engel + John Bates from the bird department at The Field Museum for showing us their collection, Geoff Hoffman + Brandon Ballengée!