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South Chicago, East Side

‘Bird Nerds’ Build Massive Antenna In Big Marsh Park To Track Birds Through Chicago’s Ancient Flyway

Birders say the 17-foot-tall, homemade antenna will give critical information about bird migration through Chicago and how climate change affects those patterns.

"Bird nerd" Edward Warden (right) and his fellow birders pose with the bird-tracking antenna they put up in Big Marsh Park.
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SOUTH DEERING — Edward Warden tells the seasons by the birds. It’s winter when the snowy owls show up, the end of fall when the cranes come through and spring when the warblers flaunt their colors. 

Now, Warden is leading an effort to better trace the migratory patterns of billions of birds who make their way through the city. The Chicago Ornithological Society, a 109-year-old group of “bird nerds” who do year-round birdwatching and conservation in the Calumet area, recently built a bird-tracking antenna at Big Marsh Park in South Deering.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System, which took four months to finish, is the first of its kind in Chicago to collect data on the “epic journeys” of migrating birds, Warden said. The group put up the DIY antenna in October on the roof of the Ford Calumet Environmental Center, 11555 S. Stony Ave., tapping into a network of more than 450 Motus towers chronicling migratory patterns across four continents. 

Credit: Provided
The Motus Wildlife Tracking System at Big Marsh Park.

It was unveiled last week in partnership with the Chicago Park District.

“Chicago sits basically on an ancient flyway. Birds have been using this route for generations, well before there even was a Chicago,” said Warden, who is president of the Chicago Ornithological Society. “We need information about where these birds are going in order to make the best decision to try to help these species survive in a changing world.”

About 400 unique species of birds have been sighted in Chicago, which is sort of a central pitstop as they fly north in the spring and south for the winter, Warden said.

Warden said Chicago is a “critical survival point” for birds and “heaven” for birdwatchers. Chicago is along the Mississippi Flyway, a superhighway for birds that like to fly along the edge of waterways to reach breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States. 

Along the journey, Lake Michigan serves as a big red stop sign. Land birds do not like to fly over water, causing a “funneling effect” that veers them to rest and refuel in Chicago, Warden said.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
A great egret rests in the water at Big Marsh Park.

Stephanie Beilke, senior manager for conservation science at Audubon Great Lakes, said Chicago and the Mississippi Flyway comprise one of the most well-flown passageways in the country — but there is not much tracking technology in the Midwest to uncover its mysteries. 

“Chicago is at the crossroads of all these migratory flyways, and better tracking could reveal the different routes birds use, the importance of flyways, which routes kind of connect to each other,” Beilke said. “There’s a lot of gaps in the Midwest. But anyone can put up a tower as long as you’re willing to learn how to do it.” 

Warden geeked out and got started. The Chicago Ornithological Society’s homemade Motus covers up to 10 kilometers, tracking bird signals off “little supercomputers” attached to them that are so lightweight, “you could even put them on butterflies,” Warden said. 

Credit: Provided
Birdwatcher Dan Lory (left) volunteered to construct the Motus himself as a way to pass time in retirement.

The group’s Motus is solar-powered and 17 feet tall with antennas that slant outwards like an old-school TV. Birdwatcher and retiree Dan Lory built it in his Hyde Park living room. 

“I got a patient wife,” Lory said. “Somebody had to build it, and I had the most time.”

For four months, the pieces stretched across Lory’s living room: antennas, metal poles and a 70-pound power battery pack. The former office dweller spent late nights fussing with the materials, wincing at blueprints and calling up kindred birding spirits who had successfully built their own. 

“It’s hard to make, because Motus is not a thing. You can’t just order it,” Lory said. “It’s like trying to put together a model airplane, but having to buy the pieces from four different locations instead of having it all in one box.”

Now that it’s in place, the birders hope the technology can provide better information to preserve bird populations in Big Marsh Park. It can also give conservationists important insights on the local effects of climate change, as tracking the birds shows how their patterns are changing, Beilke said.

“Big Marsh, and the whole Calumet area, is a tremendous haven for birds and wildlife,” Warden said. “We’ve plugged in the Motus, and now we wait for the birds to ping it.”

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