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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois • Page 267

Chicago Tribunei
Chicago, Illinois
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Extracted Article Text (OCR)

TIE WING Two northern (a a Baltimore) orioles. A northern yellow-throated warbler (left) All an de the way for only the last 150 or so. But I hadn't noticed them before. They were there all the time, but I had never seen them. This dumb bird-watching has altered my focus from the usual safe middle distance.

Paying attention to birds in the city lets you see more and, for me, has spilled over into other things. Doing it gives you the habit of looking carefully, noticing details that never seemed to be there before. Do you ever look up much, for instance? A couple of years ago in May I was lugging some grocery bags home and happened to look up- and saw five sandhill cranes cruising on a thermal, circling and circling, their giant wings outstretched and unmoving, riding the invisible heat upward. Sandhill cranes are big mothers, gray-blue birds four feet tall with wingspreads of seven feet. In summer, according to the great ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, they belong on "the prairies, fields, marshes and tundra" of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada -but to get there in spring, or back in autumn to Florida and Texas, where they winter, they must, like every other air traveler, go through Chicago.

That's the other thing I've noticed after years of staring into my back yard: How nature just keeps chugging along despite all the concrete and bus fumes. And birds are the easiest way to see it in action. The peak of spring migration is usually around May 10th, when, if you're paying attention, good birds (especially warblers, feathery miniature works of art) are practically dripping from trees and bushes. Summer's lease hath all too short a date: The first birds heading south start coming back through Chicago beginning in the middle of July. The peak of fall migration is late September, but stragglers are still passing through on Christmas Day.

or city bird-watchers, winter can be the best time. Especially on those subzero, gray January days when no sane person wants to leave the house. In such cold, bleak times it's proof that there's still life out there. The regular seed mix will lure in blue jays, mourning doves, cardinals, juncos, tree sparrows (much snazzier than regular sparrows), house finches, and others. A special thistle feeder will attract bright yellow and black goldfinches plus perky-looking crested nuthatches; and a suet feeder brings in the woodpeckers- -downy, hairy and red-headed.

Naturally what you mostly do is enrich the winter diets of sparrows, pigeons, starlings and insatiable squirrels, which have considerably greater biomass to maintain and which can foil the most squirrelproof feeder known to man. But at least there's always action at a winter feeder, even if it is just a tribe of sparrows duking it out for position. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, I've suffered habitat loss. A few years ago Al's elm tree began giving up the ghost, a victim of Dutch elm disease. That year it grew few leaves, the next year none.

Al finally had to cut it down, and we both lost a tree that we loved. One the birds liked, too. Brown creepers going up the trunk looking like big moths. Crazy nuthatches going down. Downy woodpeckers banging out their brains on the dying tree.

A silken black crow at the top, cawing complaints at a tomcat below. Clouds of sparrows squabbling among the leaves. Then Al's elm was gone. And the birds aren't able to do that now, and I don't see as many as I used to. I won't ever see this again: One early Christmas morning, four or five years ago, I was in the kitchen having coffee and staring out into the back yard as usual, the ground covered with snow.

The regular crowd of freeloading sparrows was at my bird feeder hanging from Al's elm's limb, and more on the ground beneath. I was thinking about how all I ever seemed to feed were these scruffy city bums, when in a dark flash, like Fate flying into the picture, an American kestrel- -formerly and better known as a sparrow hawk- swooped in from nowhere, landed for an instant on the bare branch the bird feeder was hanging from, then dropped like the Angel of Death into the yard, taking out a single sparrow and rising with it in its talons on strong wing-beats above the alley on its way back across Clark Street to the cemetery to enjoy Christmas dinner. We all miss Al's elm. and a Palm Warbler. MARCH 30, 1997 23.

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