In a built-up city like Chicago — with its Art Deco towers, two-flats, bungalows and warehouses studding the city’s landscape — one could argue the transition between seasons only brings so much change to the urban scenery over the course of a year.
But one thing that does change drastically from summer to winter is the bird population that calls Chicago home. “Birds — more than any other organism — really mark [the seasonal changes] visibly and auditorily for people in a way that no other aspect of life does,” Edward Warden, president of the Chicago Ornithological Society, said.
Migration patterns bring all kinds of birds to the Chicago area for short and long periods of time. For instance, in the spring you’ll find indigo buntings and all sorts of warblers, whereas August is an excellent time to see shore birds before they head south.
And those birds bring birdwatchers — or birders, as many call themselves — who follow the notes of a birdsong or a flash of color in the treetops to a bird whose presence they might log, photograph or simply enjoy.
There are many classic and likely familiar birding spots in Chicagoland, such as Illinois Beach State Park or the North Park Village Nature Center. (The Chicago Audubon Society keeps a list of favorite places.)
But here, we’ve gathered a few unexpected locations — and approaches — to birding in the Chicago area, sourced from Curious City listeners and friends of the show.
1. Don’t underestimate the view from your window
When Uptown resident Mia Park moved into her current apartment building, the rules were strict: nothing hanging from the windows, which meant no bird feeders.
But Mia — who loves birding at nearby Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary — soon discovered a workaround that would bring birds right to her window.
“I keep this plant by the window so that the birds think there is nature on the inside,” she explained. “I take a scoop of bird seed— I actually like to pour [it] as close to … where the window is, because they hop up there and I can see them better.”
These days, so many birds gather outside her living room window to eat bird seed that Mia said she has to keep her bedroom door closed at night or else all the birdsong wakes her up around five in the morning.
“Just having this little magic of a brown bird coming to sit on my windowsill to eat, it feels timeless,” she said. “You can be in this city with millions of people and noisy garbage trucks … but one little brown bird coming to my windowsill to eat feels like it balances all that.”
2. Try birding at night (Hint: Go to the light)
Edward Warden is president of the Chicago Ornithological Society and co-founder of the Chicago Nighthawk Project, a group that works with volunteers to count nighthawks around Chicago and figure out ways to conserve their numbers in the city.
When Edward and the other volunteers go looking for nighthawks in the summer evenings, they’re often going to places you might not expect, like Little League fields.
“If you’re actively hunting for nighthawks, go to the light,” he explained. “Anywhere where there are really large flood lights like ballfields or public parks or gaming areas, because you’ll see insects gathering and potentially nighthawks going after those gathering insects.”
Edward said nighthawks can be identified by the white stripes on the bottom of their wings and the shape of their mouths. “They have these enormous mouths,” he explained. “I mean, a ridiculously Muppet-like mouth!”
3. Visit the Costco retention pond
According to Bob Fisher, communications coordinator at the Bird Conservation Network, the retention pond next to the Costco in Orland Park is a great space to go birding.
“You look at the setting and you wouldn’t normally say, ‘Let’s go to the Costco to go birding.’ But it works for certain types of birds, particularly because of these retention ponds. You’ve got a habitat that they can use.”
Bob has seen birds like gallinules, wood ducks and herons at the Costco retention pond in Orland Park.
And since a lot of big-box stores have retention ponds and marshy areas nearby, Bob advised checking the back of your grocery store, particularly if you happen to live in a suburb, since there might be a surprisingly good birdwatching spot there.
Though it may be an unintuitive partnership, Bob sees these kinds of unexpected habitats as opportunities to engage companies in bird conservation. “We can go to Costco and say, ‘Okay … we’ve got a fair amount of data that shows that this is … providing a nesting habitat for a variety of birds. How can we work with you to make sure that’s still true 10 years from now?’”
4. Make use of an app like eBird Mobile or Merlin
Many of the birders we spoke with use apps to help identify and log birds they see and hear.
For novice birdwatchers, Merlin is an especially useful app. Merlin helps users identify birds by uploading photos or bird song recordings — or through a series of questions about their current location, the size and color of the bird, and its behavior. It also lets users keep track of birds they’ve spotted.
eBird Mobile is basically a database of user-uploaded checklists of the types and numbers of birds researchers and amateur birdwatchers alike have spotted in the wild. It’s a way for users to keep track of the birds they’ve seen while allowing scientists and researchers access to that data through eBird, the global database it’s connected to. eBird Mobile is also a great way to discover potentially surprising or underbirded spots in users’ area, using its interactive map.
Since for many people birding is not just about the joy of seeing and identifying a bird but also about helping to track and protect their populations, it’s a great app for birding enthusiasts.
5. Treat birding as a way of life
Jorge Garcia started birding in 2020, after getting into bird illustration and bird photography.
He said he usually hears birds before he sees them, and at the beginning of the COVID pandemic — with far fewer cars on the road — birdsong became a lot easier to hear.
Jorge lives in Avondale but travels all around the city to go birding and take photos of birds. (He clarified that birding and bird photography can be two separate things, and he generally helps count and log bird species while he’s out taking bird photos.)
“I’m out there everyday, I bring a camera everyday,” he said. “Wherever I am, I’m birding, and so I began to notice those weird areas where I might experience more birds.”
That means Jorge treats any outing as an opportunity to go birding. “If I’m passing through [a neighborhood or park], I’ll make a pit stop and take 15 minutes,” he explained. “It slows down my day, but it’s worth it and it’s a lot of fun for me.”
Jorge also leads bird walks and is an active member of the BIPOC Birders Slack group. Members post sightings, projects and create a welcoming space for birders of color.
“I kind of realized that being a brown person who is birding and walking around, sometimes that might be contentious and I’ve certainly had my moments of that,” Jorge said. “But maybe that’s enough reason to keep doing it, because maybe I can inspire others to take it up.”
6. Take a cemetery stroll
If you follow journalist Robert Loerzel, you know he’s constantly posting photos of wildlife in the Chicago area.
Cemeteries, including Graceland Cemetery in Uptown, happen to be some of his favorite locations to spot birds.
“Birds love the green space in graveyards, especially bigger places like Graceland Cemetery,” Robert explained. “I often see hawks prowling Graceland, and I’ve even witnessed Cooper’s hawks engaged in aerial combat with crows. Herons sometimes stalk the cemetery’s pond, including a great blue heron I saw on the island where architect Daniel Burnham is buried. And look for migratory birds in the prairie at Graceland’s southeast corner, where I’ve seen palm warblers and eastern bluebirds.”
7. Look for cliff swallows at the 63rd Street beach house
Cliff swallows build their nests under cliffs, bridges, building eaves — or any place a vertical wall comes together with a horizontal overhang.
That means you can often find them darting in and out of their nests at places like the underpass that runs beneath Humboldt Park Dr. in Humboldt Park or the 63rd St. beach house, as listener Bob Dolgan told Curious City.
“63rd Street is a great place to bird in general, from the little dune area to the wooded parklands and Jackson Harbor,” Bob said.
And he said it’s an especially good place to find cliff swallows.
“Once spring migration has passed, swallow species are fairly common and easy to find north and south along the lakefront,” Bob explained. “There are plenty of Barn Swallows, Rough-winged Swallows, Tree Swallows, Purple Martins, and even Bank Swallows (at Montrose Beach). But Cliff Swallows are a little harder to find. They’ve found a haven at the historic 63rd Street beach house, where they nest in the eaves and under a portico on the east side.”
8. Check out “underbirded” parks
While Chicago’s North Side is home to popular birding locations like the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary and North Pond Nature Sanctuary, South Side locations like Big Marsh Park in South Deering are equally great and often overlooked.
Big Marsh Park is a wetland close to the Indiana border, and it’s a place Woody Goss, a board member of the Chicago Audubon Society, likes to go birding. In late summer in particular, Woody said it’s a great time to spot birds like sandpipers, egrets, green herons and eagles.
“The exciting migrants are the shore birds right now in Chicago,” Woody explained. “Shore birds you either see on the lakefront and you have to get there before anyone else, or they get scared away … or you can go to a small handful of places that have the right water level, and this is one of those places.”
Other South Side locales that listeners told us are great for birding include the South Shore Nature Sanctuary (where over 180 species of birds have been spotted, according to eBird), Washington Park (where listeners have told us they’ve seen wood ducks, Baltimore orioles, kingfishers, many types of herons and more) and the Pullman neighborhood (where listeners have seen monk parakeets, which have made a home all over the South Side).
Andrew Meriwether is a journalist living in Chicago. Follow him @ohsomeriwether.
Maggie Sivit is Curious City’s digital and engagement producer. Follow her @magisiv.