The Nerd: Back of the Yards. This neighborhood is part of the Stockyards District of Chicago, consisting of McKinley Park, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, and Canaryville. They’re all close to Illinois Tech, where I work, but prior to The Nerd and the Bird’s Urban Birding Adventures, I hadn’t ever spent time in the area, at least not consciously. Our previous adventures in the McKinley Park and Bridgeport neighborhoods whetted my appetite for further exploration. I had a growing feeling that this area would connect me more strongly to Chicago, would help me feel the history of the city where I live and work, and would demonstrate that yes, birdlife and nature is embedded throughout the city. I was excited for this adventure! Sherman Park and Whiner Brewery were already on our list of places we wanted to visit, and having learned about the artist Roland Kulla living Back of the Yards and cultivating birds and nature in his yard there added to the area’s attraction to us. And with the region being so important to the history of Chicago, the whole picture seemed perfect for an Urban Birding Adventure. What I didn’t expect was that our experiences would be so rich. Looking back on our time there brings back the feeling of well-being that was with me during the whole time exploring this neighborhood.
The Bird: Our Back of the Yards adventures have ended up being my favorite so far on many levels. My only experience with the Stockyards District area before this was very specific to Bridgeport Arts Center, Maria’s Packaged Goods and the original Pleasant House Bakery (I also really wanted to visit Whiner Beer Company as part of an adventure). The Nerd and I experienced the synchronicity and serendipity that happens when you’re on the right path of an adventure, an idea, a project - anything. I was personally made aware of Roland Kulla’s backyard at a lecture the Nerd and I attended ("Bird Sounds Decoded” presented by Nathan Pieplow). Based on what I was told, Roland’s backyard seemed like the perfect adventure for us to try and explore! The Chicago Ornithological Society then kindly forwarded us information and the Nerd contacted Roland Kulla who was amazing to us on every level. In addition to Roland’s incredible backyard (that is right next to Whiner!), our visit to Sherman Park was yet another secret oasis that we both had never been to - thanks to The Nerd for finding this treasure! We both became smitten with The Back of the Yards neighborhood as it kept revealing itself...full of history and surprises. These adventures were truly in the spirit of exploration. All along we could see our old friend, Sears Tower (forever) - in the background - the ongoing symbol of the city and our birding adventures. This project has made me see and love Chicago in a way that I never thought possible, in addition to the birds - and I’m so grateful for all of it. I also love how the birds that breed here, and that I see all the time, became an exploration within themselves with their distinct colors and patterns. A Common Grackle is not just a Common Grackle. The ordinary becomes extraordinary when we take the time to look and connect. This is absolutely the intention behind The Nerd and the Bird Urban Birding Adventures. After meeting with Roland and visiting Sherman Park - it became clear that we needed a post dedicated solely to Back of the Yards. We ❤ Back of the Yards!
Total Species Count: 34
The Center of the City
The Nerd: I knew about the stockyards figuring so centrally in Chicago history and contributing significantly to the city’s rise to world prominence. What I didn’t know was that the geographic center of Chicago (as it was in 1956) is also right there in the McKinley Park neighborhood. By making just the slightest detour en route to Roland Kulla’s place, we could visit the geographic heart of Chicago! This was a must-see destination, which was said to host a commemorative sign. What was funny was that though the GPS unfailingly steered us right to where we wanted to go, it couldn’t help us see it when we got there. It took a thorough exploration of everything at the intersection of 37th and Honore, coupled with questions for several passers-by, for us finally to see the obvious: an enormous sign proclaiming the site as Chicago’s center.
It seems fitting that the geographic center is quite close to the site of The Union Stock Yards. Constructed in 1865, the stockyards combined with Chicago’s position at the time as THE major hub in the new and growing rail transportation network to provide the city with a huge economic engine with a far and powerful reach. Engineering innovation in the stock yard infrastructure, its mechanization, and the development of the refrigerated rail car created efficiencies on a scale that positioned Chicago as home to industry with global impact. Economic innovation via Chicago’s commodity exchanges and futures markets, developed in part in response to the meatpacking industry’s growth, also fueled Chicago’s birth as a global city. There were dark sides to all this, though. For instance, with railroads connecting the short grass prairies of the western United States to the economic machinery of Chicago’s slaughterhouses, the demise of the bison and their replacement with cattle was accelerated, with negative consequences for a broad segment of the continent’s ecosystems. But somehow I had the sense that this area was tangibly evidencing a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Bird: Beginning our Back of the Yards adventure, I had absolutely no idea that it was the original geographic center of Chicago, thank you Nerd! Off to W 37th Street and Honore we went! The unofficial soundtrack became Shadowplay by Joy Division! “To the center of the city where all roads meet…” However, it became hilarious once we got there. We both separately started looking for a plaque on a building or on the sidewalk...not a big-ass sign that some locals sitting on their front yard pointed out, when The Nerd asked if there was a sign...yes, a huge, green sign that I was practically standing under. Belly laughs are always a good beginning to any adventure!
Back of the Yards Yard: Roland Kulla
The Nerd: Roland Kulla lives on McDowell Avenue. The street is named after Mary McDowell, known as the “Angel of the Stockyards.” McDowell’s activity as a social reformer had tremendous impact. Among many other accomplishments, she worked tirelessly in the early 20th century to stop the accumulation of garbage dumps and the pollution of nearby Bubbly Creek. (I like also how Roland Kulla’s prior time as a social worker echoes the contributions of the woman whose name his street honors!). I liked that McDowell Avenue was the “diagonal street” of Roland’s neighborhood, the different street that contrasted with the east-west grid.
What really impressed me during the incredibly pleasant couple of hours that The Nerd and The Bird spent as guests of Roland Kulla was the sensation that life was just bursting from Roland, from his yard and environment, and from the neighborhood and its people. Here at the center of what I think of as Chicago’s industrial past we enjoyed good living and great company in a pastoral setting. We were sipping shandies, munching on strawberries plucked just then from bushes in Roland’s yard, and sampling the honey from beehives that were on site. Thank you Roland! The birds were there too. Baby grackles were already off the nest. Catbirds singing from the bushes probably nested in this Back of the Yards yard, too. Roland showed us the selection of plants in the prairie he established and talked about the migrants he has seen there. He is interested to figure out how to attract hummingbirds.
Jen and I have an interest in connecting people to the natural elements in our home city. We have a hope that with such a connection, Chicagoans will care more about the nature that thrives here, either as full-time or seasonal residents, or as migrants merely passing through. Maybe then they’ll help take better care of the nature in the city, which in turn will improve life for themselves. Roland is doing this right now, in the Back of the Yards, helping the land be reborn with nature and human endeavor in concert. I certainly felt myself amazingly connected spending time with him at his home and yard. I kept thinking, “Wow! This is Chicago!” His garden and hives and orchard were providing food, good food, and the environment was peaceful. I was reminded of life on my grandparents’ property in upstate New York (where I saw my first Scarlet Tanager) where we would pluck apples from the trees as snacks. But this was here at the center of Chicago. Amazing!
The Bird: I was excited to meet Roland Kulla, not only because of his wonderful backyard, but because he’s an artist. He’s a painter. We were greeted with a warm hello and smile as we entered his incredible studio space. It’s a dream studio - complete with an always coveted skylight to work by. There were many large scale paintings of his photorealistic bridges and industrial scenes that are the vernacular of Back of the Yards. His work is representative of a fascination with urban landscapes and the human connection to this built environment. I was reminded of my love for modernism and the Precisionist artist Charles Sheeler. Kullas work is technical and beautiful. There is an intimacy to his work that I find intriguing, familiar. It quickly felt like we were visiting a dear friend as Roland’s personal story unfolded. He spent 10 years in the seminary before moving into social work, where he spent 30 years as a caseworker, administrator, researcher, teacher and consultant. Roland began painting in the late 80’s, and began actively pursuing an artistic career in the early 2000’s. He moved to Back of the Yards for the reasons most artists live in a neighborhood: an AFFORDABLE studio space that is ideally a live/work space. He converted a bar into his studio and home, pointing out where the bar used to stand, below his paintings that hung elegantly on the wall above.
I was curious to see if his connection to birds and nature was associated with his creativity. As we sat underneath his charming German crafted gazebo in his peaceful backyard, it became clear how seamless his life was, because he lives what he loves and puts love and mindfulness into all things. Everything is intentional, as is his artwork. His yard was well planned: all of the plants are indigenous (they require far less water, in addition to providing vital habitat for birds and many other species of wildlife). Roland’s created a prairie habitat, along with vines to grow grapes to make wine, an herb and vegetable garden, a solar powered water feature for the birds, orchard trees, beehives tended by Bike a Bee - which features “Roland's Late Summer honey” (available at the farmers market at The Plant, which can be seen from his backyard!). Roland has a deep connection to his surroundings and community, along with a self sufficiency (not unlike a farmer) that you don’t think of having in the city. I asked him if he would allow us to come back during peak fall migration, with the hope of seeing Ruby-throated hummingbirds. I'd like to make him a Bird cocktail inspired by him and his backyard: "The Ruby-throated Hummingbird" using strawberries and his honey (perhaps another way to "attract" them to his yard!) We need a lot more backyards like Roland's because urban habitat is becoming more and more vital to the migration and survival of birds coming through and breeding. Thank you again to Roland for his warmth, kindness and hospitality!
Adventure pairs well with: La Internacional Supermercado! Their steak tacos are consistently ranked as some of the best in the city - and are indeed fantástico! We got some to take to Whiner Beer Company! Whiner is located in The Plant, which is a vertical farm and business incubator. The Plant is home to numerous businesses rooted in sustainable food production. Check out their website and list of awesome tenants! Innovation meets amazing! We could see the tubes of water recycling spent grain from the brewery as a source of fish food for the onsite aquaponics farm! All as we were enjoying our delicious Rubrique-a-brac (The Bird) and Fur Coat (The Nerd)! Cheers to big picture thinking!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37476429
The Nerd: Wow. Though we were feeling so good from Kulla’s and tacos and beers, it was time for the adventure to wind down. But the time was also right to add one more element: we could cruise the neighborhood to find a Common Nighthawk coming out at dusk to lay claim to his territory. It wasn’t too long before we heard one calling. We weren’t able to get over to him fast enough to get a visual, but it was comforting to hear it call. This a species undergoing steady decline. In Chicago, numbers have gone down in part because of changes in roofing technology. Nighthawks like to nest on flat, gravel rooftops. These days, you are more likely to see vulcanized rubber or PVC roofing, which is not good habitat.
The Bird: Of course this was a heart attack moment because it was at night and suddenly we’re circling a city block in the car trying to find the bird...in the dark. Who says birding isn't filled with drama and excitement?! I just had my first Common Nighthawk life bird at Jarvis last month during a “May Madness” adventure. That bird wasn't vocalizing during the day, when we saw it. However, it’s funny to me now to realize how many times I’d heard one over the years and not known that it was a Common Nighthawk...now I know.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37480726
The Nerd: What a gem this park is! The Nerd and The Bird had done a “drive by” on the way to Kulla’s a couple weeks prior, and it gave off such an inviting vibe, with lots of mature trees and with only bits and pieces of the lagoon visible because the ground around the perimeter was raised up, giving the interior some privacy. Getting on the ground inside the park only enhanced the vibe. The sightlines and vistas within the park were incredible. This park is laid out with athletic fields on a big island inside of a tree-lined lagoon. But this description seems hardly to fit the actual feel. While on the athletic fields you feel surrounded by nature, like you’ve found a nice open area in the wilderness where you might stop to play ball. The fieldhouse and neighboring buildings fit seamlessly with their surroundings. Thank you Daniel Burnham and the Olmsted brothers! The birds seemed attracted to the park, too. We found lots of breeding activity, from geese and ducks to gnatcatchers and orioles. Lots of orioles! There was a phoebe in fresh dress, showing off crisp buffy wing bars. At one point we encountered a family troupe of Black-capped Chickadees, with the kids insistently begging from their parents. It was nice too how the park was nestled in the surrounding residential neighborhood. The residential character and the raised ground around the perimeter really made this a quiet haven of nature in the Back of the Yards.
The Bird: When we scoped out the park before visiting with Roland, The Nerd commented on how lush Sherman Park was. We knew we needed to come back. At my request, we planned to see only this park. Which is how I like it, because we got to spend almost 3 ½ hours there. We took our time and truly explored this beautiful park. The whole time I kept saying how different this park felt. That the details of the landscape design and fieldhouse were special. A raised mound around the perimeter of the whole park made it so quiet despite the surrounding houses and streets. Bridges over the large lagoon took us to a magnificent green space that was completely surrounded by water and beautiful trees. It wasn’t until the end of our exploration that I asked a young man that worked in the field-house what year it was constructed. Yes, we have smartphones, but that’s not the best way to find things out on an adventure. We got to meet people this way...but the Nerd Googled away and we were then astonished to learn that nationally renowned landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers and architects Daniel H. Burnham and Co designed Sherman Park!
The best part was how Sherman Park supported the birds - it was a vibrant nursery! I’ve never seen so many babies and nests! Baby Canada Geese, Mallards, Baltimore Orioles, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-capped Chickadees! Thanks to Geoffrey “Magic Ears” Williamson (seriously, there needs to be a set of bronzed ears and a plaque at Peggy Notebaert honoring those ears and the North Pond Bird Walk)! It was another time when it felt like the birds were trusting us - especially the Canada Geese...until The Nerd started to do acrobatic National Geographic wildlife photography moves. The look-out geese were like "Come along kids, back into the water!" We saw the most Baltimore Oriole nests/sacks I’ve ever seen. The pictures The Nerd captured of the interaction between the parents and young are pretty amazing. Just your average parents raising their kids in the big city! We also saw/heard four crows “cawing” and going bananas in a tree. A fight - no, raiding a nest - no, enjoying a bounty of red berries - yes! All was right in Chicago and Sherman Park - as we were leaving the Nerd pointed out Sears Tower (forever) above the tree line of the lagoon.
Adventure pairs well with: Bridgeport Bakery. Roland Kulla said the chocolate doughnuts from here were the best! They are!
Back of the Yards Coffeehouse. Their mission is to have a direct social and economic impact on the communities of Nueva Independencia, Chiapas and Back of the Yards, Chicago. Their coffee is delicious! The Nerd confirmed that Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers all winter in Chiapas - yet breed here Chicago. A wonderful example of how we are all connected to each other and these birds. We enjoyed coffee and doughnuts with a large group of Canada Geese tending to their young, as we greeted a new day next to the beautiful lagoon at Sherman Park.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37721795
The Nerd: I don’t remember the last time I pulled into a White Castle parking lot. It was a long, long time ago. But here we were, desperately steering into one. Why? I’d heard a loud “Squawk!” outside the car, instantly recognizable as the call of a Monk Parakeet. There had to be some nearby! Jen convinced me that it was NOT a good idea to be backing the car up in the drive-thru lane of this fast food restaurant. After a some maneuvering around plus going around the block, we settled in the parking lot of a closed down Currency Exchange, and from there we had front and center views of a couple of large stick nests. These parakeets nest colonially in big structures made of sticks. Oftentimes the nests are built in cell phone towers, but these were in a large honey locust tree. Monk Parakeets have a long, storied history in Chicago; they’ve been here since the 1960s.
The Bird: And yet another heart attack moment, because we were all of a sudden in a White Castle/Chateau Blanc parking lot and I quickly found myself being the voice of reason that it wasn't a good idea to go through the drive-thru or in the wrong direction of the arrows. I heard the Monk Parakeets once The Nerd pointed them out (tropical sounds in Chicago!)...then we were in hot pursuit circling the busy daytime traffic of the Boulevards trying to find green birds in green trees...then Geoffrey Williamson located a huge nest in a tree. We had an awesome view from the The Currency Exchange parking lot...with the car thankfully stopped! We watched them fly in and out of their large stick nest-condo and then drove around to get a closer look - only to find a second nest! It was one of the unexpected surprises that we always hope for! High-five!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37722194