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Lincoln Park, Old Town

Dying Oak Tree Finds New Life As Sanctuary For Migrating Birds In Lincoln Park — Thanks To 190 Birdhouses

The art installation "Nestful" transforms a dying oak tree into a habitat for dozens of migratory birds and insects. "The area is just prime for a lot of the birds coming through," one of the artists said.

"Nestful" gives a century-old oak tree new use by featuring nearly 200 birdhouses.
Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
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LINCOLN PARK — A century-old oak tree adorned with dozens of wooden birdhouses is delighting Lincoln Park neighbors and giving a home to scores of migratory birds and insects.

The tree is across the street from Lincoln Park’s Farm in the Zoo, 1911 N. Stockton Drive, and is decorated with 190 birdhouses. It’s part of the Chicago Tree Project, a collaboration between the Park District and Chicago Sculpture International founded in 2014 to transform sick and dying trees into public art.

At more than 100 years old, this tree is nearing the end of its life and breaking down from previous damage and the loss of foliage for hydration and food, according to the Chicago Tree Project.

Eventually, the tree will collapse under its weight and become nutrients for fauna, flora and future trees. Until then, it’s found a new sense of life by giving home to native birds and insects, artists said.

“The tree isn’t quite dead yet, so we’re keeping it alive for as long as we can by adding birdhouses for animals and birds to come in and still have the tree as a structure,” said Janet Austin, president of Chicago Sculpture International and one of the two artists behind the installation. “We’re also giving the tree new life as an art piece.”

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
The birdhouses were made with various dimensions to support different kinds of birds and insects.

The installation is named “Nestful” and was completed by Austin and artist Emily Moorhead-Wallace in October. But it’s recently created buzz online by a neighbor who noticed the structure and shared it on Reddit, calling the whimsical birdhouses “modern multifamily housing.”

“Looks cozy, to be honest. I’ll offer $385k for the lower left condo,” one Redditor joked.

“This is extremely delightful,” another poster said.

The installation is a commentary on urban-density living while raising awareness for the various migratory birds that stop by Chicago in the spring, the artists said.

The artists researched the kinds of birds that stop by each year — chickadees, nuthatches, swallows, wrens, woodpeckers, warblers, flickers, starlings, sparrows, flycatchers, bluebirds and titmice — to create the birdhouses with the ideal dimensions for them to nest.

“This brings to light that Chicago is right on this migratory bird path, and a lot of the birds we hope to attract are coming in right now with this area being off the Great Lakes and North Pond,” Austin said. “The area is just prime for a lot of the birds coming through.”

With this being the first spring since the project was created, Moorhead-Wallace is looking forward to seeing what kinds of critters the art piece attracts, she said.

“I can’t wait to see all the birds, but we also have this squirrel who was living in the tree and would come around and hang out with us, checking out our work last year,” Moorhead-Wallace said. “I want to see how he’s doing this year.”

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
The birdhouses were made of various kinds of reclaimed wood.

Austin and Moorhead-Wallace were assigned to a dying tree near North Pond when they started the project. They moved to the tree on Stockton because of the Lincoln Park Conservancy’s efforts to restore North Pond to a healthy depth.

“They just started dredging the pond, so that [first] tree is going to be removed,” Austin said. “They found us this oak tree instead, [and it’s] this beautiful, big old tree.”

Austin and Moorhead-Wallace started work last spring by collecting scrap wood and other materials to craft the birdhouses.

“I have a house I’ve been working on, so we reclaimed a lot of the lumber out of the house and some cedar siding that was used as cladding on some walls to make the birdhouses,” Moorhead-Wallace said.

The artists also used reclaimed barn wood, fir obtained from a mill and wood donated from a local furniture business, Moorhead-Wallace said.

“It was fun to get to reuse existing materials to make the birdhouses,” Moorhead-Wallace said.

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
The birdhouses were installed in October 2021.

Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.

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