A Chicago museum disrupted an endangered bird’s habitat

A Chicago museum disrupted an endangered bird’s habitat

Published September 27, 2022

12 min read

Since 1856, the Chicago Historical Society has carefully preserved artifacts and documents that catalog the heritage of the Windy City. Its collections are housed in the Chicago History Museum, a structure erected in 1932 in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood several blocks from Lake Michigan. The museum has seen multiple expansions and now houses a variety of carefully curated exhibits.

In 2021, the museum broke ground on an effort to modernize its shaded lawns. The project included the construction a walking path with signs that highlight Chicago’s history, the installation native plants, and the strengthening of the ceiling above the leaky underground archives. This was done in part to make the space more appealing for high-end events such as weddings and fundraisers.

The area, however, was also adjacent to a long-standing breeding ground for at least 45 pairs of black-crowned night herons, which are listed as endangered in the state of Illinois. The museum officials were aware of the herons. Staff and visitors also enjoyed the endangered bird’s nestery.

“The birds had been around for a while,” John Russick, senior vice president of the museum, told National Geographic. “It was kind of cool that they were here.”

Yet museum officials appeared to minimize possible damage to the birds’ rookery that a major construction project would cause. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources did a brief environmental assessment of the birds and concluded that the renovation would not cause any disruption to herons. Teams of workers arrived in March of 2021, just before the herons’ annual springtime nesting season. Sometimes, the crews operated loud equipment just a few yards from rookery.

Soon after, the birds left their nests. Crows were observed scavenging nestlings for food several weeks later. In 2022, a handful of male herons returned to the site, but after failing to attract mates, they left. The museum maintains that it took all necessary steps to minimize the impact of the construction upon the birds.

” We tried to minimize as much of the heavy labor as possible during that period,” Russick says. But environmental and wildlife advocates believe that more could have been done in order to protect the birds from a range of harmful impacts. Amy Lardner, a conservationist who in 2022 founded the Chicago Black-Crowned Night Heron Project, had obtained permission from the museum to monitor their progress. She visited the site shortly before construction began and found it disturbing. The property was unfenced except for a few trees. Construction noises could be heard from early morning until late afternoon.

” I initially thought, “Well, it’s quiet at the rookery,”” Lardner explains. “But as the months passed, I noticed a decrease in the number of adults and no chicks. I knew by the middle of May that things were not on track.”

Herons under encroachment

The museum project is not the first time black-crowned herons have experienced reductions of crucial habitat in Illinois. While the birds can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, and are populous in parts of the U.S., they have been listed as endangered in Illinois since 1977.

Surveys in the 1980s and 1990s reported as many as 70 breeding sites. Today, the only major breeding colony in the state is in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. A few colonies remain along the Fox River, while another large colony is found at an Indiana industrial site.

Habitat destruction has been the main factor in the decline of heron populations over the past 30 years. The herons are also at risk from non-human competition. The aggressive double-crested cormorants eventually overtook the colonies in the Chicago suburbs of Lake Renwick and Baker’s Lake.

Walter Marcisz, the former president of the Chicago Ornithological Society, remembers seeing massive numbers of herons emerging from the colonies surrounding Lake Calumet on Chicago’s Southside, one of the species’ last redoubts.

“The highest number we got in a single day flying out of the colonies was around 1,500,” he recalls.

Beginning in 2002, Marcisz helped Jeffrey Levengood, a University of Illinois wildlife toxicologist, track the herons’ nightly expeditions to feed on invasive alewives–a type of fish–in Lincoln Park on Chicago’s Northside. Later, a series of droughts and floods drove the herons north where they settled in the dense canopies that surrounded the neighborhood.

Greg Neise, who at the time served as the staff photographer for the Lincoln Park Zoo, first noticed empty black-crowned night heron nests on an overgrown island located in South Pond adjacent to Lincoln Park Zoo in the winter of 2006. He began photographing active nests the following July.

However, in the winter of 2009, the trees that populated the island were cleared as part of a restoration effort. Although mature trees were planted to replace them, the herons didn’t return to breed the next season. They moved to an alley of trees in neighboring parks to the west, and a few birds began nesting in the area above the Children’s Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo. By 2010, all the herons had vacated the Calumet area and settled into Lincoln Park.

Then, in 2014, they again came into conflict with local interests. The birds moved towards the zoo and other areas because of the damage caused by the emerald Ash Borers and the herons’ guano. By 2015, they had set up camp on the grounds of the Chicago History Museum.

A shortened environmental review

Around the same time, the history museum was accelerating plans for a redevelopment of its site, which sits on land owned by the Chicago Park District.

In April of 2020, the museum, via its primary contractor, filed a request for an EcoCat consultation with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, as required by state law. All state and local projects are subjected to an impact review in Illinois. This process is also available in other states and at federal level through the National Environmental Policy Act.

The request for review included both the state-threatened black-crowned night sheons and the longnose sucker, which is a fish that lives near Lake Michigan.

But the request for review did not mention that black-crowned night sheons are known to breed on museum grounds. It only mentioned that herons were present in the area, which could have been taken to mean the colony at the Zoo.

“At that time, we had no records of black-crowned night heron[s] at the museum, and the applicant made no indication that herons are known to nest on the museum grounds, so we terminated the consultation without recommendations,” said Jayette Bolinski, director of communications for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in an emailed statement. The review was closed the next day after IDNR investigators failed to visit the site. The Park District, which owns land where the history museum is located, but was not involved with the environmental review, suggested that the museum had to report any signs of wildlife dangers.

“Any and all construction in or around a Chicago Park District natural area or a known bird habitat is avoided during migration and nesting season,” said Irene Tostado, Park District deputy director of communications, in an emailed statement. She added that “the Chicago History Museum was responsible for management of the construction project, which included monitoring and documenting the presence of wildlife in the area as well as seeking approval for the project from IDNR.”

In the aftermath, Lardner, the conservationist, asked the IDNR to investigate the matter. The agency opened an investigation into whether the illegal “take” of the museum’s rookery was occurring. This could potentially be a violation of Illinois’ endangered species law. Officials closed the investigation due to the lack of information. The IDNR concluded that no potential offense was serious enough to warrant criminal prosecution.

Seeking common ground

It is often difficult to balance the needs of human development with those of wildlife, especially in urban environments. In 2012, a colony of grey-headed flying foxes, a species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and by Australian authorities, was pushed out of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia because it was destroying much-beloved trees. In 2019, volleyball courts in Chicago had to be shut down and a concert canceled to accommodate a pair of nesting piping plovers. The species is endangered in Illinois and at the federal level in Great Lakes. This constant tension often pits conservationists and land-use specialists and provokes debates over what it means to preserve land for maximum enjoyment and use.

Around the Chicago History Museum, the effects of the construction on the herons appear to be permanent. The herons have not returned home to breed and there are no signs that they were ever there. The evicted birds are believed have returned to the Lincoln Park Zoo colony, where they concentrate around a habitat for the red wolf, which is a federally endangered species. The zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute reported a record 750 adult herons and 400 fledglings this year.

Except for a few small, isolated colonies, the rookery at the zoo appears to be the species’ last remaining breeding ground in the state.

Advocates hope that restoration efforts in the Calumet region aimed at creating habitat for marsh birds and other wildlife may help to draw some of the population south again to their historic breeding grounds.

Until then, the species finds itself restricted to its space at the zoo, surrounded by wolves and speeding cars, and reliant on the consideration of humans who now dominate what was once undisturbed wetland. The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, an investigative reporting project that focuses on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to [email protected]. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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